June 1, 2017 09:35 AM

Justice Reinvestment reform bills are slogging toward passage, but time is tight

The House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee approved three bills at the heart of the state's criminal justice reform effort on Wednesday, but the bills now face additional steps in the approval process because they were amended.

The committee approved SB220 and SB221 by Senate President John Alario and SB139 by Sen. Danny Martiny. All three bills were amended in the committee hearing before they were approved. The bills now head to the House floor for votes in a few days — exactly when will depend on which days (if any) the House meets over the weekend.

Because the three Senate bills have been amended, if they win House approval, they must go back to the Senate for concurrence on the amendments. Each step in the process is governed by rules regarding public reading of the bill titles before debate and votes. With the session mandated to end on June 8 at 6 p.m., the session calendar now appears to be the biggest threat to the Justice Reinvestment bills that seek to reduce the state's prison population through a combination of changes in the law, sentencing requirements and parole practices.

Angela Smith, secretary to House Clerk Albert Speer, told The Independent on Thursday morning that the House will meet in session on Friday and is likely to be in session over the weekend. Smith said that Speaker Taylor Barras won't decide until Friday which days the chamber will meet this weekend.

"The Speaker has set Saturday as a tentative day for the House to be in session, but he will review the progress made on Friday before deciding whether to actually call the members in on that day," Smith said. "The House has traditionally met on the Sunday before sine die, but no formal decision has been made yet."

The fate of the Justice Reinvestment bills could ride on whether the House meets on one or both of those days.

House rules require that bills be read by title in three successive meetings of the body before they can be subject to debate and votes. With seven days left in the session and with the bills in the hands of the Legislative Bureau being updated to include the amendments approved by the committee on Wednesday, having at least two more days of the House in session appears be crucial to the reforms' chances of becoming law.

None of the three bills appears on today's House Order of the Day. They will likely appear on Friday. If the House meets in session on both Saturday and Sunday, votes on the bills could come as early as Sunday. If the House meets only on Sunday, the earliest possible votes could come on Monday. If the House doesn't meet on Saturday or Sunday (considered highly unlikely), the earliest votes could come on Tuesday, two days before the session must end.

If the bills are amended on the floor of the House, that could add another delay in the process as the bill would require additional attention from the Legislative Bureau.

Bills returning from the House for concurrence by the Senate don't have to sit on the calendar any particular length of time, but it will be up to the bills' authors to call them up for votes with recommendations as to whether to accept the House changes or not. If the House amendments are rejected, a conference committee on for each bill must be formed, a compromise must be reached by the conference committee members, then the compromise bills would be sent back to each chamber for approval.

The House has all the leverage of time on these Senate bills with time getting short. Any of the three bills could be amended in such a way as to make them unacceptable to their respective Senate authors but there might not be enough time for a conference committee to workout a compromise before the session ends.

SB220 is a sentencing reform bill that increases the felony threshold for a series of non-violent crimes, combines a collection of theft-related crimes into a single theft charge, and provides for the creation of a Felony Class System Task Force to study the idea of having Louisiana implement a system similar to those used in the more than 30 other states where criminal justice reforms have become law.

SB221 makes changes in the state's habitual offender law to enable crimes on a person's record to be removed from consideration when prosecutors decide whether to prosecute them as habitual offenders. Sentences imposed when a person is classified as a habitual offender are longer than those attached to the basic crime for which they are charged.

SB139 makes changes in the state's parole system, providing for education, training and treatment for inmates prior to their release from state custody. The bill focuses on providing the opportunity of parole for non-violent offenders. The changes proposed by the bill would not apply to persons convicted of sex crimes or crimes of violence.

While no committee voted against the other two bills, SB139 won approval on a 10-6 vote of the committee. That could indicate trouble for it once it does reach the floor of the House.

Committee chair Sherman Mack of Albany will handle another Senate bill tied to the Justice Reinvestment package when it is debated on the floor of the House on Friday. SB146 by Sen. Dan Claitor also addresses the habitual defender law. The amendments made to SB221 on Wednesday make it identical to Claitor's bill, providing a fallback bill should opposition arise to Claitor's bill.

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