May 17, 2017 09:21 AM

Focus shifts to House committee, floor votes today

Governor Jon Bel Edwards formally announces agreement with District Attorneys' Association
Photo by Robin May

The effect of a compromise agreement between the governor's office and Louisiana's district attorneys and sheriffs on the criminal justice reform legislation announced on Tuesday produced swift results as the Senate passed three bills at the core of the package within hours of the announcement.

On Monday, Pete Adams of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association told The Independent that an agreement in principle had been reached between his association and Gov. John Bel Edwards on the bills that were produced as a result of the work of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force. On Tuesday, Adams joined Edwards, Corrections Secretary Jimmy Leblanc and key legislators in a press conference in the Capitol to formally announce the agreement.

Edwards praised the commitment of all the parties involved in the negotiations to "make smart changes" in Louisiana's criminal justice system ranging from sentencing provisions to conditions for parole. Edwards, whose father and brother have served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, says the reforms are essential for public safety and for the state's fiscal future.

"I know we can get more public safety bang for our buck," Edwards says. "We have to. We're hemorrhaging money a system with a high rate of failure. And each failure creates a new crime victim."

Edwards explains that Louisiana's incarceration rate is a result of state policies, not a crime rate that is out of line.

"Our crime rates are similar to most of the states in the South," Edwards says.

"As most of you know, the United States leads the world in imprisonment and Louisiana locks up more people at a rate that nearly doubles that of the national average," he adds. "That's why we have the highest incarceration rate in the country. It is not because we have the most crimes. It's because of our policy positions and the laws we put on the books ratcheting up prison terms for all sorts of offenses."

Edwards says enacting the reforms will allow Louisiana to join dozens of other states that have passed criminal justice reform and reduced their crime rates.

Pete Adams of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association
Photo by Robin May

Adams says his association was successful in negotiating the focus of the legislation onto non-violent offenders. He declares that the compromise "protects the safety of the people of Louisiana."

"District attorneys are not opposed to all change," Adams continues. "Being number one in incarceration is not something we're proud of. But, with this compromise, we feel we've achieved a balance in the legislation by bringing the primary focus back to non-violent offenders where we thought it should be."

The press conference ended just as the Senate was going into session at 1 p.m.

There were three bills that had been made Special Orders of the Day that are part of the Justice Reinvestment package. SB220, SB221, and SB139 were all handled on the floor by Jefferson Parish Sen. Danny Martiny.

In the governor's press conference, Sen. Martiny confessed to being part of the problem that had made Louisiana the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country.
Sen. Danny Martiny
Photo by Robin May

"I consider myself part of the problem," Martiny says. "We come here one year and make something a crime, then we come back and stiffen the penalty, then we come back the next year and impose a mandatory minimum sentence. Then, we have fiscal problems and we make cuts at the Department of Corrections. Secretary Leblanc can't cut prisoners so, he cuts programs. As a result, we end up holding non-violent criminals longer and they don't get access to the kinds of programs they need that could help them improve themselves and make a better life once they get out."

Martiny vows that "we can't continue to do what we've been doing." He says the data-driven approach provided by the analysis performed by the Pew Foundation was the right approach that could help the state take a more rational approach to law enforcement and criminal justice reform.

Martiny made much the same pitch to his Senate colleagues later in the afternoon, to great effect.

SB220, which overhauls the sentencing requirements and creates a task force to study the formation of a felony class system here similar to those in other states, breezed through by a vote of 28-8 with two abstentions. The bill originally established the felony class system. The LDAA had argued that the idea needed further study. The creation of the task force was one of the compromises won because it delayed the immediate implementation of the plan formulated by the Justice Reinvestment Task Force.

SB221, which revises the state's habitual offender laws, also won easy Senate approval. The bill shortens the length of time that can allow earlier convictions to be excluded from consideration of a person's habitual offender status.

Martiny's SB139 provides for alternative sentencing and makes changes in the state's parole laws that will make it less likely that people who violate parole conditions for administrative reasons won't automatically be sent back to prison. The bill was amended by Martiny on the floor to provide more input for district attorneys in the evaluation of parole violations. The bill will not impact parole terms and conditions for violent crime and/or sex crime offenders. The bill passed by a vote of 26-11 with one abstention.

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice was scheduled to consider other bills in the Justice Reinvestment package when it met on Wednesday morning.

Rep. Walt Leger III
Photo by Robin May

Rep. Walt Leger III's HB489 creates a mechanism to reinvest the savings generated by the criminal justice reform effort in programs that can help former inmates ,transition back into the community after they are released. It also provides funding for treatment and education programs for inmates prior to their release.

Leger says the biggest change in the bill is that the compromise announced on Tuesday will result in a larger percentage of the savings being reinvested in programs aimed at lowering recidivism.

Late Wednesday morning, the committee approved HB489 without opposition. The bill was amended to include the higher criminal justice reinvestment level agreed upon with the district attorneys on Tuesday.

The committee is also scheduled to consider HB101 by Rep. Terry Landry. The bill is the House companion to Sen. Dan Claitor's SB142 to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana. Claitor's bill is scheduled for debate on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday. Landry is the former head of the Louisiana State Police. Claitor is a former prosecutor. Both were members of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, although their bills are not officially part of the task force's legislative package.

Death sentences carry with them mandatory appeals, which fall to the judicial district where the conviction was obtained. Annual spending on death penalty appeals total in the millions of dollars, according to advocates of abolishing the death penalty.

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