Louisiana eyes overhaul of its criminal justice system

BATON ROUGE — A criminal justice task force wrapped up months of debate and put its final stamp Thursday on a package of recommendations estimated to lessen Louisiana’s highest-in-the nation prison population by 13 percent over the next decade. The next move will be decided by lawmakers.

Gov. John Bel Edwards embraced the work from the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which has presented proposals for a sweeping rewrite of Louisiana’s criminal sentencing laws and its approach to prisoner rehabilitation.

The Democratic governor said state corrections policy has been “driven by fear” for decades, rather than “hope balanced by reason.”
“It is not true that being tough on crime is always being smart on crime,” Edwards said.

If the full package proposed by the task force is enacted by lawmakers, it is estimated to drop the prison population by 4,800 people and lessen state
corrections spending by a net of $150 million by 2027.

Here’s a look at the issues being debated:

Criticism Of Louisiana Laws

Supporters of the widely bipartisan effort said Louisiana has focused too heavily on locking up people for nonviolent and drug-related crimes, rather than on rehabilitation and treatment. The corrections system costs about $650 million a year, a hefty price tag that has drawn attention amid continuing state budget troubles.

Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said many prisoners are jailed for too long, out of step with other Southern states. And he said many have limited or no access to skills training and addiction programs to ready them for leaving, making them more likely to reoffend.

The chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson, told the story Thursday of a man arrested in 1994 for stealing shoes from a dollar store in the New Orleans area. Because he had prior drug convictions, Johnson said, the man was sentenced to 26 years and eight months in prison.
“We have spent $665,000 to date to incarcerate (him) for a pair of cheap tennis shoes. I think we need to be smarter,” she said. “We can rehabilitate lives. We can send people home. And then they can take care of their families and they can pay taxes.”

Proposals For Change

The package of recommendations forwarded to state lawmakers would rewrite sentencing laws, expand probation and parole eligibility, invest more heavily in re-entry programs and lessen financial burdens on those convicted.

The report proposes adopting a felony class system for crimes such as murder, robbery and burglary. Sentencing ranges would be clearly spelled out, along with eligibility criteria for prison alternatives. Supporters say that would end wide disparity in sentences.

Other proposals would expand alternatives to prison, revise drug penalties to target higher-level drug crimes and cut the window of time that certain prior convictions count toward classification as a habitual offender.

The Justice Reinvestment Task Force — the 14-member study group of judges, lawmakers, a sheriff, a district attorney and others — spent nearly a year working on the proposals, in close coordination with the Pew Charitable Trusts as an adviser.

The Hurdles For Passage

The push for a criminal justice overhaul has been embraced by a wide mix of political groups, from conservative and business organizations to liberal advocacy groups. But they’ll need to persuade lawmakers.

“For all the work we’ve done, we’re just getting started,” said task force member and Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. “We’ve got a triathlon to run from this point.”

Disagreements already have emerged.

District attorneys raised concerns about proposals that could lessen sentences for people convicted of violent crimes. The proposals were included in the recommendations despite a lack of unanimous support on the task force.

Law enforcement officials expressed worry that lawmakers will enact the sentencing changes but use the savings to plug budget holes, rather than reinvest in training and treatment programs to improve public safety.

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