The Louisiana Legislature agreed Monday (June 5) to the rough outlines of a criminal justice overhaul that is predicted to lower the state's prison population by 10 percent and save $78 million over the next 10 years. Negotiations over the details of individual bills are expected to continue over the final three days of the legislative session, but initial votes of approval from the House and Senate make it likely the changes will be approved by the time the Legislature must adjourn Thursday at 6 p.m.
"I am proud of the legislature's work on these historic bills and look forward to signing them into law when they make it to my desk," said John Bel Edwards in a written statement Monday.
The criminal justice package could be the hallmark achievement of 2017 for both Edwards and lawmakers. As a gubernatorial candidate in 2015, Edwards committed to lowering Louisiana's prison population enough to move the state from having highest incarceration rate in the United States to the second highest by the end of his first term. This plan gives him a chance to accomplish that goal.
For too long, Louisiana has had the highest incarceration rate in the nation," Edwards said in his written statement. "We will begin to reverse that very soon."
Both the House and the Senate unanimously supported the bills -- even those giving more leniency to violent offenders. The overhaul was the year's rare public policy issue to enjoy bipartisan support in a Legislature increasingly divided along political party lines. The package's 10 bills, three of which have already been sent to the governor, are sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. Those working hardest on the criminal justice overhaul in the Legislature are among the most conservative lawmakers and the most liberal.
Assuming the package is enacted:
- Defendants convicted in the future of crimes related to theft, burglary and drugs would face shorter sentences and parole and probation periods
- Thresholds for being sent to prison in some cases would be raised
- The number of people on probation and parole would increase by 1,200 over the next two years
- When inmates first come out of prison, they would be expected to face fewer financial burdens
- Judges would be allowed to reduce and waive fines for ex-inmates who cannot pay
- Ex-inmates wouldn't be faced with large child support bills that have accrued while they have been behind bars either
- Drug felons could qualify for food stamps and other welfare benefits
- Ex-convicts would be able to get a business license more easily
- Notification to crime victims when criminals come up for probation would be strengthened.
Before the House agreed to pass some of the legislation, lawmakers made adjustments to the sentences for heroin possession and distribution that were proposed. People convicted of heroin distribution would potentially face less time in prison than they do now, but it wouldn't be as short as the initial proposal. People convicted of heroin possession would also be forced into treatment if convicted. Local sheriffs had asked for these changes.
Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said the changes to heroin drug sentences would lessen the drop in the prison population and savings expected from the criminal justice overhaul, but not that significantly. Only about 260 people are sent to prison for heroin related offenses each year, he said.
The package would require that the state redirect 70 percent of any money the state saves from the reforms to education, job training and rehabilitation programs for incarcerated people over the next 10 years. The amount is estimated at $184 million. Some money would also have to go to juvenile justice services and crime victim programs.
The legislation has been written in such a way that this "reinvestment money" is supposed to be protected until 2027. That means it would prohibit lawmakers from sending that money to other budget priorities.
A large part of the package's success relies on the reinvestment clauses. But there has been skepticism expressed about the money's dedication, with speculation that lawmakers will find a way around it to use the money for something else, especially if state government's financial crisis persists.
"You know it is a good pipe dream," said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, about moving the money from prison spending to rehabilitation programs. "I just can't see people spending money on reform like that."
Many other Southern states have already reworked their criminal sentencing and prison structure over the past 10 years to lower their prison populations. Louisiana is employing many of the same strategies that have seen success elsewhere, according to advocates.
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal tried make some changes in 2012 but was thwarted by the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Louisiana District Attorneys Association. Sheriffs and district attorneys are often more influential than lawmakers are with voters, so they have the ear of many legislators.
Edwards was able to work out a compromise with the district attorneys and sheriffs before most of his criminal justice package started moving through the Legislature. Criminal justice reform also had more influential groups in the statehouse -- the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, as well as the Louisiana Family Forum -- actively pushing for it this year than it did in 2012.
The package is less aggressive than the one Edwards initially proposed. Most of the current package addresses only nonviolent crimes; much of leniency for people convicted of violent crimes was removed, although there are some notable exceptions.
The legislation makes 160 to 170 people convicted of second-degree murder in the 1970s eligible for parole after 40 years. When those people were initially sentenced they were eligible for parole, but that option was later removed. Sentences for some first-time violent offenses -- though not sexual assault, armed robbery or murder -- also have been adjusted.
People who were convicted of violent crimes but who are sick might also become newly eligible for medical furlough, which allows for temporary release. The package lets the Department of Public Safety and Corrections grant temporary, supervised medical release for a wider range of inmates.
The governor and LeBlanc plan to return next year and push for even more criminal justice changes.
Edwards wants Louisiana to move to a more standardized way of handing out felony sentences, where similar offenses carry similar penalties. Right now, Louisiana has hundreds of different felony sentences that were written individually and make it difficult for people who are charged to figure out what type of penalty they might receive. The governor plans to back legislation to simplify that process in 2018.
LeBlanc also wants to seek more relief for people convicted of violent crimes, particularly those serving life sentences that don't have access to parole. But even without those changes, he said he was pretty pleased with the changes made for nonviolent offenders.
"I think this is historic for our state," he said.