May 15, 2017 11:05 AM

Bills to reform Louisiana's criminal justice system had mixed success last week, but that could change this week.

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An agreement in principle has been reached on four bills that constitute the centerpiece of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force's legislative package, which should enable consideration of those bills to advance during the final three weeks of the session.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association, says the agreement was the product of negotiations that involved his group, proponents of the legislation and Gov. John Bel Edwards and his staff. He spoke with The Independent by phone on Monday morning.

"We have reached an agreement in principle on the four major bills," Adams says. "I expect it will be announced on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday where three of those bills have been made Special Order of the Day for consideration."

The bills on the Senate calendar for Tuesday are Senate Bills 220, 221 and 139. The fourth bill in the package, SB16, cleared the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last week with amendments and now awaits consideration by the full House, possibly as early as Monday afternoon.

Those four bills constitute the heart of the year-long formal effort to reduce the financial and human costs of what one proponent of the reforms calls "Louisiana's draconian approach to criminal justice."

Will Harrell, Southern regional policy director for the ACLU, tells The Independent that he is optimistic but not complacent about the prospects of the major pieces of legislation making it into law.

"It's not an easy task," Harrell says. "There are so many elements in the mix. I think we're getting there but the clock is running on the session. I'm concerned about the possibility of an intentional delay that could cost us as the time grows short."

Harrell says legislators are doing due diligence on the issues. He adds that public support for the reforms is as broad as the coalition that has been pushing it. Those groups range from the ACLU to Louisiana Family Forum.

Harrell says he's worked on criminal justice reform in eight different states and that each of them has produced multi-year efforts. He expects the same thing in Louisiana and he says the compromise worked out with the district attorneys is based on continuing the review of the state's criminal code.

"At the end of the day, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has not been touched either directly or indirectly by the toll that our draconian approach to criminal justice has exacted on our state," Harrell says. "What we're trying to undo is 40 years of failed criminal justice policies."

Harrell says the core bills were derived from the analysis of statistics provided by the Department of Corrections.

"The Pew Foundation brought us the data-driven analysis of what's been taking place here," Harrell explains. "They said, 'Here it is. Take it or leave it.' We've taken some of it and left some of it. I expect we'll be revisiting this again in the years ahead."

He says data-driven criminal justice reform efforts in Texas have been ongoing for more than 15 years. The Mississippi reform efforts are in their third year.

One element of the reform effort that will continue after this session is the formation of a task force to examine the creation of a felony class system in Louisiana's criminal code. Creation of the felony class system was part of the original SB220 by Senate President John Alario. It was stripped from the bill when it was considered by Senate Judiciary C on May 2 after Adams and the LDAA objected that the proposal needed more study.

The bill was amended to create the Louisiana Felony Class System Task Force. Adams and the LDAA wanted greater influence in the review process. In all, more than 60 changes were made to SB220 by the committee, most of those the product of negotiations involving the DAs and the governor.

SB221, also by Alario, would amend the state's habitual offender law by reducing the amount of time that could elapse before earlier convictions could be removed from an offender's record. The habitual offender law allows tougher sentences for repeat offenders. The bill also reduces the severity of sentences that can be imposed using the habitual offender statute. The bill would not affect sentencing involving sex crimes or crimes of violence.

Data from the DOC reveals that the majority of state prisoners admitted into the system each year are now for parole violations. Parole violations range from failure to report to a parole officer to failure to pay fees or the parolee having committed another crime.

SB139 by Sen. Danny Martiny of Jefferson Parish reforms the state's sentencing and parole guidelines. Adams tells The Independent that he expects SB139 to be amended on the Senate floor on Tuesday as part of the compromise reached on the overall package.

The House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee sent SB16 to the floor of the House but with amendments. The bill authored by Justice Reinvestment Task Force member Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge seeks to put the state's criminal code in line with rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States on the issue of life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.

The court ruled in 2012 that life sentences for juvenile offenders without the benefit of parole was unconstitutional. In 2016, the court reaffirmed the decision involving a Louisiana case, Montgomery vs. Louisiana, saying that the 2012 decision applied retroactively to all juveniles who had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Claitor's bill would create a path to possible parole for the roughly 300 Louisiana inmates who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole while they were juveniles. However, as amended by the committee, the bill would still allow prosecutors to pursue life without parole sentences in some cases involving a juvenile. In other words, the state law would be in apparent violation of the Supreme Court's Montgomery decision.



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