June 5, 2017 12:55 AM

Bills to reform the state's criminal justice system face hurdles in closing days of the session

Photo by Robin May

The fate of the legislative package supporting the objectives of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force could be decided on Monday in the House of Representatives. Three bills viewed as the heart of the criminal justice reform effort are scheduled for floor debate and votes.

The three bills — SB220, SB221, and SB139 — deal with aspects of the criminal justice system that have made Louisiana the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country despite the fact that crime rates here are equal to those in neighboring states.

SB220 by Senate President John Alario adjusts sentences and redefines what constitutes a felony-level conviction on some crimes.

SB221, also by Sen. Alario, changes the state's habitual offender law to allow crimes committed by individuals to be removed from consideration in whether a prosecutor can seek to apply habitual offender status when charging a person with a crime. Being classified a habitual offender makes those charged eligible for longer sentences.

Sen. Danny Martiny
Photo by Robin May

SB139 by Sen. Danny Martiny changes parole practices and makes non-violent offenders eligible for parole earlier if they have participated in education, rehabilitation and treatment programs. The most controversial part of Martiny's bill is that it would grant the possibility of parole to just over 100 inmates who were convicted of second degree murder at a time when state law offered the possibility of parole. The state later revoked that possibility with a change in the law. SB139 would reinstate the possibility of parole for those inmates whose eligibility existed and then was taken away.

The bills are the products of Senate veterans but their fate will rest in the hands of one of the newest members of the House, Rep. Joe Marino of Gretna. Gretna is the parish seat of Jefferson and he is a criminal defense attorney there and a former member of the Gretna council. Marino is not a member of a political party and won the seat in a special election last year.

He heard about the work of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force and let the Edwards administration know he was interested in helping advance whatever legislation resulted from the work of the task force.

Early opposition to the task force's recommendations came from the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association. Pete Adams, executive director of the LDDA, told The Independent earlier in the session that he did not believe the task force had "enough practitioners on it." Marino fills that bill although perhaps not from the perspective that Adams sought. Adams and the LDAA have since endorsed the Justice Reinvestment Task Force bills after negotiating changes in them with advocates and the Edwards administration.

When the bills were considered in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last week, Marino handled the explanations and the technical amendments to the bills. He will be handling the bills in the well of the House this afternoon.

Because the bills were amended in committee and might be amended again from the floor today, they will have to be returned to the Senate for concurrence in the amendments. Part of Marino's job will be to try to keep deal killer amendments off the bills because of the lack of time remaining in the session. If the bills clear the House today, they will be sent to the Senate. Martiny and Alario would then recommend that senators either concur in the changes or reject them. If the amendments are rejected, a conference committee would need to be created (one could possibly handle all three since the bills have traveled as a pack through both chambers).

But, that would put things in a deep time crunch with the end of the session looming on Thursday.

Sen. Dan Claitor
Photo by Robin May

Sen. Dan Claitor urged the Senate to reject House changes to SB16, the bill dealing with juvenile life sentences without the benefit of parole. Despited the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States has declared life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, SB16 was amended to allow district attorneys to continue to seek those sentences in cases involving first and second degree murder. The Senate rejected the House amendments and a conference committee will try to reach a compromise on the issue.

One of Claitor's other bills that, like SB221, also deals with the state's habitual offender law has won final approval and awaits Gov. John Bel Edwards' signature. SB146 won Senate approval on Saturday on House amendments to the bill.

Rep. Vincent Pierre is going to recommend that his House colleagues concur with Senate amendments made to his HB688, which bans most public colleges and universities from asking questions about an applicant's criminal background on the school's initial applications for admission.


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