Amid crime spike, are Louisiana criminal justice reforms to blame?
Before getting to the meat of why Gov. John Bel Edwards last week vetoed legislation that would have changed the criteria for when a four-time felony offender could get out of prison, he waxed about the advances brought on by a five-year-old bipartisan effort to redirect Louisiana’s throw away the key criminal justice system to something closer to rehabilitation.
House Bill 544, which the governor vetoed because it “would take us in the wrong direction,” is the first to reach his desk in what advocates call the most sustained effort to roll back the Justice Reinvestment Package since it was passed in 2017. It’s not the first time that opponents have attempted to weaken the effort responsible for freeing several thousand inmates. But driven by rising crime rates and surging opioid use, the three-month session that ended June 6 saw the most vigorous push yet to trim the initiative.
“There clearly was an attempt to rollback what happened in 2017,” said Scott Peyton, the Louisiana director for Right on Crime, one of the prime promoters of the changes. Based in Austin, Right on Crime is affiliated with the American Conservative Union Foundation and Prison Fellowship. Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich are supporters. Loren Lampert, the head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, disagreed. “There was a lot of noise being made, but the truth is there wasn’t a retrogression effort,” Lampert said. He saw the bills that passed, at least most of them, as needed tweaks.
“There was recognition that we sort of dropped the ball on nonviolent offenders, as far as programming goes, which has helped create a revolving door impact,” Lampert said.
The primary motivation for the attempted changes is the political reaction to increased crime, said Rep. Joe Marino III, the Gretna criminal lawyer without party affiliation who chairs the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, where most of the legislation was heard.
“The reaction is to try to fix it immediately. We as a state are still not investing enough money in mental health and substance abuses and job skills,” he said. Marino said many bills – both some that passed, many more that didn’t – added to the crimes of violence list. Being convicted of a violent crime translates to longer sentences and less access to programs to prepare the inmate for reentry into society. “It’s a rewidening of the net,” said Will Harrell, policy director for Voice of the Experienced. Based in New Orleans, VOTE advocates for reform from the perspective of the incarcerated and their families.
Some advocates have called on Edwards, who ranks criminal justice changes as one of his top accomplishments, to reject at least some of the bills that cleared the legislative process and chip away at a portion of judicial reinvestment. Bills targeted by advocates include legislation that decreases “good time” credit for a person convicted in the death of a peace officer or first responder killed in the line of duty; and prohibiting a judge from waiving minimum mandatory sentences for all crimes of violence and enhancing sentences by five years for a second offense crime of violence.
Hoping to wrest Louisiana from the dubious laurel of having the world’s highest ratio of its population in prison – 16% more than Rwanda at number two, 25% more than Cuba – an unusual coalition of liberals and conservatives came together in 2017 and formed a study committee. The task force gave legislators political cover to reduce the incarcerated population without being personally tagged as soft on crime. Taxpayers saved $114.8 million from not having to support so many people behind bars. The money is being spent on a variety of programs that help those released from prison and reduce the possibility that they would commit further crimes.
About 60 bills dealing with bits of the criminal justice revamp were filed. Many were passed and already have been signed into law, such as increasing penalties for carjacking with a weapon and stealing a catalytic converter.
Many were defeated, such as requiring background checks for workers dressed in costume; and castration for those convicted of sex offenses when the victim is under the age of 13.
Others didn’t make it through the process in time, like an effort to end Raise the Age, which would return 17-year-olds to adult prosecutions and prisons. The rollback effort wasn’t clearly declared.
Rather, the bills were in-the-weeds rewrites of definitions that changed the calculations that translated into longer prison terms and less access to reentry programs.
A good example is HB544, which Edwards vetoed.
Current law provides that a person shall be eligible for parole once he or she has served 25% of the sentence. HB544 would have extended parole eligibility to 65% of the sentence for offenders convicted of a fourth and subsequent nonviolent felony. In addition, the bill would change the rate that “good time,” which can lead to an earlier release in return for good behavior. Current law calculates 13 days of “good time” for every seven days served in actual custody. The measure would change that from one day off for every two served for fourth and subsequent nonviolent offenders. “It would result in over a 100% increase in the time required to be served in the law after 2017,” Edwards wrote in his veto message.
“There’s no ‘easy button’ with this stuff,” said Lampert of the DA’s association. “It seemed regressive, retro, tough on crime on bill but really … the net effect is these folks are not getting the programing the Justice Reinvestment initiative is paying for.” Lampert points out that of the 3,227 inmates serving sentences for non-violent crimes, 2,640 are housed in parish prisons awaiting a space in a state facility. That number includes 2,486 people with drug addiction problems. Unfortunately, the local facilities have neither the money nor the resources to get their charges off drugs, learn a trade and prepare for a lawful life in society, he said.
The proposal would give multiple offenders time enough to go to state prisons and access those reentry programs, Lampert argues.
Law enforcement and advocates worked together on bills that started out with harsh wording. Two identical measures sitting on the governor’s desk started out by defining possession of a firearm by someone with a previous felony conviction as a crime of violence. VOTE’s Harrell said the initial wording could have returned to prison someone who caught a ride to work in a car containing a weapon that he or she had no idea was there.
When the bill came up before the House Criminal Justice committee, Harrell said advocates entered negotiations with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association to limit the violent crime classification to previously convicted violent felons who used the gun in the commission of a subsequent crime.
“That’s a reasonable argument,” Harrell said. “It’s not always adversarial.”