June 6, 2017 12:08 AM

Criminal Justice reform bills heading toward passage and Governor's signature

"Devoid of Hope," 1883, Oil on Canvas by Wojciech Gerson/Wikimedia

Historic changes in Louisiana's laws affecting crime and punishment are headed to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature.

The Senate concurred with House amendments on the core three bills in the package on Tuesday morning while the House concurred on Senate amendments made in bills that originated in that chamber during its morning session. A few remaining bills awaiting concurrence will be considered by the House when it returns from its mid-day recess.

One bill in the package dealing with giving juvenile offenders life sentences without the possibility of parole is heading to a conference committee to determine if differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill can be worked out.

The Senate approved House amendments in the core three bills of the package on Tuesday morning. Those bills — SB220, SB221 and SB139 — change the felony threshold for some crimes, reduce mandatory minimum sentences, change the state's habitual offender law and reform the state's parole system. The bills were amended in a compromise with the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association to focus on non-violent offenders.

An exception was made in Sen. Danny Martiny's SB139. A portion of that bill restores eligibility for parole for more than 100 people who were convicted of second degree murder but who lost that eligibility later when the legislature changed the sentencing guidelines for that crime. Martiny's bill won concurrence in the Senate on Tuesday morning with the bare minimum of votes needed, 20-13-5.

A conference committee will try to work out remaining differences on SB16. Sen. Dan Claitor's bill tries to put Louisiana's juvenile sentencing practices in line with a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have ruled that life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional. Amendments made to the bill in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee and on the House floor provided district attorneys the option of continuing to seek those sentences of certain juvenile offenders.

Sen. Dan Claitor
Photo by Robin May

Claitor heads the three Senate members appointed to the conference committee by Senate President John Alario. He'll be joined by Martiny and Sen. Troy Carter. House conferees appointed by Speaker Taylor Barras are Reps. Sherman Mack, Tanner MaGee and John Stefanski. Mack authored the two amendments that essentially maintain Louisiana's status quo on juvenile sentencing for first- and second-degree murders. He chairs the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee. Magee is a first-term lawmaker from Houma. He's also an attorney. Stefanski, an attorney from Crowley, was elected earlier this year to fill the unexpired term of Jack Montoucet who left the House to become Secretary for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Other bills have cleared their final hurdles or appear to have procedural votes standing in their way of becoming law.

HB116 by Rep. Stephen Dwight provides for the creation of a crime victims registry which would be used to notify them of the opportunity to become involved in parole hearings. That bill is on its way to the governor's desk.

HB249 by Rep. Magee tailors financial obligations regarding restitution, fees and fines of those convicted of crimes to their ability to pay. This bill was amended by the Senate and will be considered by the House on Wednesday.

Rep. Walt Leger III
Photo by Robin May
by Rep. Walt Leger III is the reinvestment part of the Justice Reinvestment package. Compromises with the LDAA that narrowed the scope of the reforms to primarily non-violent offenders also reduced the savings the state will reap because of the reforms. HB489 was amended after the compromise was reached to redirect 70 percent of the savings from the reforms to programs that will enhance the likelihood of successful re-entry into the outside world for offenders. This bill has been approved by both chambers and is headed to the governor for his signature.

HB519 by Rep. Julie Emerson ends the practice of the state issuing provisional drivers licenses to former prisoners. Emerson's bill directs the state to issue unrestricted licenses to those former prisoners. HB519 has won approval from both chambers and is headed to the governor's desk.

HB680 by Rep. Joe Marino suspends child support payments for inmates while they are incarcerated. The bill was amended by the Senate. It awaits a House vote on concurrence on Wednesday.

HB205 by Rep. Joe Bouie allows for time held in custody prior to conviction and sentencing to count toward the 15 years of jail time required before applications can be filed for a pardon or a commutation of a sentence. The bill has cleared both chambers and is headed to the governor.

Rep. Helena Moreno
Photo by Robin May
by Rep. Helena Moreno would restore eligibility for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for former prisoners who had been convicted of crimes involving drugs. Louisiana is one of six states that has not waived the federal ban on allowing former drug offenders to receive the food assistance. Persons convicted of all other types of crime are eligible to participate in SNAP upon their release from prison. The Senate amended the bill. House concurrence on the Senate amendments is scheduled later on Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning the House concurred with Senate amendments to Rep. Vincent Pierre's HB688, which prohibits most Louisiana colleges and universities from asking about an applicant's criminal past on initial admission forms (the state's medical schools are exempted from the law). The bill now heads to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature.


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