May 3, 2017 10:30 AM

Changes reflect changes sought by district attorneys. Package still

The bills at the heart of a bi-partisan criminal justice reform effort underwent major revisions on Tuesday in Senate Judiciary Committee C. When the committee finished its work, about 100 amendments had been added to the three bills considered.

The committee approved the amended versions of SB139, SB220, and SB221. The bills were the product of a year of work by the Justice Reinvestment Task Force created last year with the goal of responsibly reducing Louisiana's prison population, which is the largest per capita in the country. The committee meeting ran into the night. Versions of the bills reflecting the amendments made were not yet available late Wednesday morning.

Supporters of those involved in the reform efforts were deflated, judging from an email sent to supporters updating them on the committee's work by John Burkhart with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has worked with the Louisiana Family Forum, the Pelican Institute and the ACLU on the reforms for the past year.

The bills seek to reduce the cost of operating the Department of Corrections by reducing prison populations through a combination of changes in sentencing policies and rules applying to paroles. The original bills covered some violent offenders, which drew the objection of the state's district attorneys.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, spoke with The Independent in an interview on Wednesday morning. He says he believes the amendments made in committee yesterday make the bills more acceptable to his members, but he says the reform effort "is still a work in progress."

"I'm optimistic that we can accomplish something significant by the end of this session," Adams says. He believes the original task force was "left leaning" and that its work reflected that.

"The people on that task force are good people, but I don't believe that their views reflected the views of most judges or prosecutors," Adams says. "The work of the task force focused on policy. These bills were only drafted in the last few weeks. I think what we saw in committee yesterday was the gap between discussions on policy and actual legislation."

Adams and the district attorneys had objected to that portion of the package that included making it easier for violent offenders to be paroled. Much of his group's efforts — including direct negotiations with Gov. John Bel Edwards — has focused on narrowing the reforms to concentrate on non-violent offenders.

"Using the figures of the DOC and the folks from Pew [Charitable Trust], if we focus only on non-violent offenders, we can achieve 86 percent of the cost savings and reductions in prisoners that the proponents are seeking," Adams avers.

A particular sticking point for Adams and his members was the provision in SB220 to establish a felony class system in Louisiana. Adams says it was a rushed effort that did not include enough input from what he termed "practitioners — prosecutors and defense attorneys."

"No state has tried to adopt a felony class system as quickly as the Justice Reinvestment Task Force wanted to do," Adams says.

One of the amendments in HB220 approved yesterday, according to news reports and Adams, eliminates the immediate creation of a felony class system. Instead, it creates another task force whose work would be to focus strictly on that subject. Adams has argued publicly that creating a felony class system would require substantial changes in other laws.

"So, if this bill makes it into law, we'll have a task force that will look at the idea of creating a felony class system," Adams says. He wants that task force to involve more prosecutors and others who work in the criminal justice system.

Adams says he has been encouraged by the administration and the Legislature's acceptance of input from his group. He believes the only chance reforms have of making it through the current session is by keeping the focus on non-violent offenders.

Most of the growth in Louisiana's inmate population over the past three decades has come through an increase in the number of people serving time for convictions for non-violent crimes, according to DOC statistics.

Two House bills that are part of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force legislation advanced in the House on Tuesday. HB74 by Rep. Denise Marcela of Baton Rouge provides a pathway toward possible parole for juvenile defenders convicted of violent crimes. It won approval by the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. The same committee also approved HB205 by Rep. Joe Bouie of New Orleans. Bouie's bill would allow inmates to become eligible for parole 15 years after their arrest. Currently, eligibility for parole is based on the amount of time that has passed since a person was convicted.

The Independent contacted supporters of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force for comment, but they had not responded at press time.

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