Senate agrees to criminal sentencing law revamp

BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana Senate on Tuesday approved three key bills backed by the governor to decrease the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate and save millions of dollars each year.

Senators voted more than two-to-one in favor of each measure Tuesday, hours after the Democratic governor announced a compromise with district attorneys.

The bills next head to the House for consideration.

If the measures pass, Gov. John Bel Edwards expects Louisiana’s prison population to be reduced by 10 percent over the next decade thanks to expanded opportunities for probation and parole as well as shrunken sentences for some offenders.

“This is a first step, but it’s a giant step in trying to turn this thing around,” Sen. Danny Martiny said during the governor’s news conference. The Kenner Republican argued that legislators need to take some blame for giving prosecutors the tools that caused the state’s 0.81 percent incarceration rate to be the highest in the world and nearly double the national average.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, said prosecutors took no joy in that statistic.

“Being number one in the world in incarceration rates is not something we’re proud of,” Adams said. “We wanted to do something about that, but in a manner that was responsible and protected public safety.”

The estimated $262 million savings is 87 percent of what a criminal justice task force predicted if the bills had passed before district attorneys convinced lawmakers to exclude sex offenders and violent offenders from most changes. The original bills would have brought about a 13 percent decrease in the prison population, the Pew Research Center said.

Seventy percent of that savings would be re-invested in programs to decrease recidivism, leaving the state with an estimated $78 million over the next 10 years.
Edwards argued that investing so much money back into the prison system will lead to even further savings down the line, as fewer crimes would be committed and fewer people would be put behind bars.

“If all we want to do is pocket this savings, we will not be successful,” Edwards said.

Having received the support of the district attorneys, Martiny, who presented the three bills, was met with limited opposition from his Senate colleagues.

Prior to voting against all three measures, Sen. Mike Walsworth, a West Monroe Republican, argued that violent criminals were not truly being excluded from these changes, as alleged violent offenders are sometimes allowed to plead guilty to non-violent crimes instead.

“I agree with you,” Martiny said. “But what’s the solution? We just don’t do anything because this might happen?”

Martiny’s bill, which passed 26-11, would expand opportunities for parole and probation for offenders.

It also would create a furlough program allowing those who are especially ill to be temporarily released from prison to obtain treatment. Since they would no longer be technically incarcerated, the offenders would be able to have 90 percent of their medical bills paid by the federal government through the Medicaid program. The state would be responsible for the remaining 10 percent.

The other two bills, both by Senate President John Alario, involve lowering or eliminating the mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent crimes as well as decreasing the minimum penalties for repeat offenders. Both of those measures passed by a vote of 28-8.

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