LSU Manship News Service
BATON ROUGE — The House Administration of Criminal Justice advanced controversial bills on Tuesday that would abolish the death penalty and lower sentences for first-time marijuana possession.
Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, who pushed for abolishing capital punishment in both 2017 and 2018, sponsored that bill. It passed 8-7, reviving a proposal that was rejected by the Senate last week.
“Death by government is wrong, and that is why I bring this bill,” Landry, a former superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said.
Landry said he had had a change of heart about the death penalty over the years. He also disclosed that he would not seek re-election, emphasizing that his proposal was not politically motivated.
His bill is similar to one sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, that was rejected on the Senate floor.
Louisiana is among 31 states that continue to implement the death penalty.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, one of the highest ranking Republicans in the state, has accused Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, of slowing down the use of capital punishment.
Edwards argued in March that a shortage of lethal drugs made it difficult to conduct executions.
During the hearing, four speakers testified against the death penalty. Among them was Shareef Cousin, a former death row inmate who was sentenced to death in 1996 and exonerated in 1999 for a wrongful conviction.
“When you vote on this bill, think of your children,” Cousin said. “Think of the society that you want your children to be raised in.”
Proponents of the bill cited the high costs of paying for death row inmates, racial disparities in convictions and executions and moral reasons why capital punishment should be abolished.
“Sentencing and application of death penalty in Louisiana is quantifiably racially skewed,” according to Nicholas E. Mitchell, a race expert at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Mitchell said that in Louisiana black males are more likely to end up on death row.
Maintaining an inmate on death row year costs 4.5 times more than for other inmates, according to Jessica White, an instructor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. These expenses include the heightened security costs, court fees, and the appeal process.
“Every family member does not feel the same,” argued Rep. Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, who has personally been affected by tragedy in her family. She said one person being executed who was wrongfully convicted would be too much.
Other legislators expressed strong opposition to banning the death penalty. They included Rep. Raymond J. Crews, R-Bossier City, and committee chairman Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany.
Crews argued against Landry’s statement that death by government is wrong. A “constitutional republic,” Crews said, has the right to execute people.
The committee also advanced a bill, 7-5, that would reduce the sentence of a first offense marijuana possession.
“A lot of these offenses are done by young people, and once they get a record of imprisonment, it is difficult for them to keep their jobs,” said Rep. Marcelle, who sponsored the bill. “A lot of parents have to pay money to get them out of jail,”
The bill changes the penalty for first time marijuana possession for under 14 grams to only a $300 fine, taking away any risk of jail time. Marcelle believes that would help lower the state’s high incarceration rates
Other legislators were less enthusiastic about the bill.
“In all my years, I have never seen someone go to jail who got arrested for the first time for marijuana,” Rep. Steve E. Pylant, R-Winnsboro, said.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, who also voted against the bill, claimed that both Baton Rouge and New Orleans had disproportionately high rates of murder rate and were unfit to be the state’s “moral compass.”
Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, countered that it is “unfair and inappropriate to tie the legislation being discussed today to the murder rate. If we want to have a serious conversation about murder rate, we can have a serious conversation about socio-economics and what leads to inner-city crime,” he said.