BATON ROUGE — In a legislative session mired by budget feuds, tax disagreements and a divisive debate over Confederate monuments, Gov. John Bel Edwards had one major achievement: He convinced legislators to overhaul Louisiana’s criminal sentencing laws and its approach to prisoner rehabilitation.
Over the course of about two months during the recently-ended regular session, 10 heavily-negotiated bills backed by the governor and a state task force steadily progressed through the Legislature. Lawmakers met nearly every day to discuss some of the finer details with district attorneys, judges, victims’ advocates and various other stakeholders.
On Thursday, Edwards is expected to sign all 10 proposals into law.
After the laws take effect — some primary pieces go into effect Nov. 1 — the Democratic governor predicts Louisiana’s prison population will fall about 10 percent over the next decade, resulting in millions of dollars in savings each year.
Edwards expects the changes to help Louisiana relinquish its dubious title of the “incarceration capital of the world” by 2018, thereby achieving one of his first-term goals.
The plan also goes beyond saving money. Seventy percent of the estimated $262 million in savings over the next 10 years will have to be reinvested in treatment and training programs to keep people from returning to prison.
“I know we’re on the right road,” said Sen. Danny Martiny, who sponsored one of the key bills and called passage of the measures his greatest accomplishment in 23 years as a lawmaker. “We won’t know (their full effects) until we get further down the line, but the important thing is that we’ve stopped the bleeding.”
The bills have a variety of aims:
LESS TIME BEHIND BARS
—Probation and parole eligibility will be expanded, primarily for those who committed non-violent crimes. The maximum probation length is being reduced for most nonviolent offenses from five years to three years.
—First-time violent offenders will be eligible for parole after serving 65 percent of their sentence, rather than 75 percent.
—Mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent crimes are being reduced or eliminated.
—Drug offenders will be encouraged to enter drug court programs that offer incentives for staying clean.
—The window of time that certain prior convictions count toward classification as a habitual offender is being shortened. The so-called cleansing period will be reduced form 10 years to five years for nonviolent and non-sex crimes.
—Ex-offenders who cannot pay court fees or fines cannot be incarcerated or have their driver’s license suspended.
—Inmates whose medical treatment is especially expensive could be temporarily released on furlough so the federal government would pay for 90 percent of their medical costs. The federal government does not pay for any medical costs if someone is incarcerated.
BETTER FUTURE FOR EX-OFFENDERS
—Seventy percent of any savings will be reinvested in anti-recidivism programs. These include the expansion of programs that teach inmates skills that will help them secure jobs upon their release.
—Ex-offenders are expected to have an easier time obtaining certain occupational licenses.
DECREASING FINANCIAL BURDENS
—Fines, court fees and restitution will shrink if such payments cause a “substantial financial hardship” for former offenders. The monthly payments cannot exceed the wages earned in a single eight-hour work day. If the ex-offender repays the fees consistently for a number of months, the rest of the debts will be forgiven. The bill applies only to felonies.
—The accrual of child support obligations will be suspended if an offender is incarcerated for at least 180 days and can’t pay. The obligations can be extended by the same amount of time the duties had been suspended. For example, a person who was in prison for two years could be forced to owe child support for two years longer than he or she otherwise would have.
—Drug felons won’t be barred from receiving food stamps and welfare benefits upon release.
—A task force will study the possible creation of a felony class system to standardize sentencing guidelines and achieve more consistency in how felonies are prosecuted.