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Louisiana may be poised to pass ‘historic’ criminal justice reform, reduce prison population


May 17, 2017
By Julia O'Donoghue
Originally Posted on The Times Picayune

Louisiana appears poised to implement a criminal justice overhaul that Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration calls historic and the biggest step the state has ever taken toward reducing its highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Edwards and the state's district attorneys on Tuesday (May 16) announced a compromise that is expected to reduce Louisiana's prison population by 10 percent and save the state $78 million over the next 10 years.

The Edwards administration admits the initiative might not drop Louisiana from having highest per capita prison population in the United States to second highest, as he had hoped. But the governor's staff said he plans to come back in 2018 with more proposals to reach that goal. As a candidate for governor in 2015, Edwards pledged to put Louisiana on track to shed its No. 1 national ranking by the end of his first term in office. 

"He definitely doesn't want to be No. 1," said Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel to Edwards and a key negotiator for him on criminal justice. "This is the first of many steps to come." 

The compromise package also would redirect $184 million from conventional incarceration toward "reinvestment" programs such as prisoner rehabilitation, drug counseling and job training for offenders. Programs that benefit crime victims also would receive a piece of this money. And some reinvestment funding would also go to local sheriffs, who stand to lose funding if Louisiana sends fewer state prisoners to be housed in their jails. 

The Senate easily passed three measures that are central to the criminal justice package: Senate Bill 220, Senate Bill 221 and Senate Bill 139. Six related bills, less controversial, have a good shot of gaining passage from the Legislature as well. 

Read the summaries of bills and see how the Senate voted:

SB 220 digest and vote

SB 221 digest and vote

SB 139 digest and vote

Should they be enacted, most of the changes would affect most prisoners convicted in the future of nonviolent offenses such as theft, burglary and drug possession. Some nonviolent offenders already in prison could also become eligible for parole earlier -- immediately, in some cases -- and would have more opportunities to earn "good time" towards an early release.

In the future, people convicted of violent offenses for the first time would also receive parole access slightly earlier than they do now. The legislative package also lessens the financial obligations of offenders when they are released from prison and jail. 

The negotiated compromise dropped proposals for shorter sentences and other release efforts for violent offenders currently in prison, at the insistence of the district attorneys. There are two notable exceptions:

  • The changes would give the Department of Public Safety and Corrections more flexibility to release prisoners temporarily for medical reasons
  • For the first time in decades, about 140 inmates who have been in prison since the 1970s and are serving life sentences would be made eligible for parole. These prisoners had been eligible for parole when they were sentenced 40 years ago, but the option was taken away from them at some point through a law change that had nothing to do with their behavior. Many of them expected to be in prison barely 10 years when they were first incarcerated. They are senior citizens now and were hoping Edwards might take up their cause. 

The governor's staff and House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said they don't expect the package's three main bills to change much when the House takes them up. Now that the district attorneys are behind the effort, and the sheriffs aren't opposed, the legislation is likely to face far less opposition. 

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Louisiana District Attorneys Association have torpedoed previous efforts to overhaul Louisiana's sentencing and parole system, most recently in 2012 when Gov. Bobby Jindal made a run at the same issue. But in the past two years, Louisiana's criminal justice reform efforts have picked up some powerful allies: the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Louisiana Family Forum, two of the state's most powerful interest groups. And Ryan Haynie, one of the chief organizers of Louisianians for Prison Alternatives, is a partner with his father, Randy Haynie at Haynie & Associates, one of the premiere lobbying firms at the Capitol. 

How the $184 million in reinvestment money would be spent, and exactly who receives it, would be largely controlled by the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. The legislative package provides a rough breakdown but doesn't go into detail. Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said he is drafting a five-year plan.  

The governor and criminal justice advocates had initially proposed a much more ambitious package, to save the state $151 million by 2027. The projected savings has been cut almost in half, to $78 million. The reduction of the prison population also went, from 13 percent in the governor's original proposal to 10 percent in the compromise. 

But the amount of money being allocated toward reinvestment programming has increased by $30 million under the compromise. The district attorneys had asked the state to devote more money toward reinvestment. 

The district attorneys drove a tough bargain on violent crime in general. For example, Louisiana prison officials initially pushed for many more inmates serving life without parole to be made eligible for parole. For months, LeBlanc advocated for a geriatric parole measure, which would have made most people convicted of murder eligible for parole once they reached age 50 and served 35 years in prison. That measure has been removed from the package, so most of the 4,850 people serving life sentences will still end up dying in prison unless they are granted a medical release. 

The district attorneys also successfully got a proposal to move Louisiana to a simpler, more transparent felony sentencing system shelved this year. Under the governor's original proposal, Louisiana would have organized 626 felony laws -- each with its own punishment and rules about parole and "good time" credit for early release from prison -- into seven classes, each with similar sentences and release rules.

But because of objections to the proposed felony class system from the district attorneys, the state will be studying whether Louisiana should move to a felony class system over the next year instead of implementing one. The governor's office said it would like to return with a bill next year to make the felony class shift in 2018.  

All of the criminal justice stakeholders haven't reached a compromise on every aspect of Edwards' package. The district attorneys and the Senate are at odds about what to do with people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole eligibility. Prosecutors want a flexible law that would still allow some juveniles to be sentenced to life with no parole. The Senate passed legislation to eliminate the no-parole possibility. 

That issue, however, is not central to the criminal justice package and was not a key part of the negotiations between the district attorneys and governor. Edwards doesn't plan to take a position on the juvenile life sentences issue at all. "We haven't taken a lead on that measure," said Monroe Wesley, special counsel to Edwards who has been negotiating the criminal justice package for the governor.