Criminal Justice Package passes Louisiana House and Senate

06/07/2017
All 10 bills of a dramatic overhaul of Louisiana's criminal justice system have passed both chambers of the Legislature, and are within reach of the governor's desk for final approval.
 
It's a victory for advocates pursuing the ambitious revamp that will, in large part, lead to some lighter jail sentences. It's also somewhat unexpected for the bipartisan consensus on the issue in such a deeply conservative state where law enforcement and elected officials have long prided themselves for being tough on crime.
 
But being tough on crime has led to laws that have overtime lengthened sentences and removed parole opportunities for offenders, earning Louisiana the unwanted distinction of being the most highly incarcerated place in the world.
 
Some of the measures still await approval of amendments tacked on through the process, but legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards celebrated Monday evening after the final group of bills passed the House chamber.
 
"Today's progress on the criminal justice reform package coming out of both chambers demonstrates that we can find bipartisanship and collaboration among our elected leaders in Louisiana on tough initiatives that prioritize the best interests of our people," Edwards said in a statement. "I am proud of the Legislature's work on these historic bills and look forward to signing them into law when they make it to my desk."
 
When running for office, Edwards promised to reduce the prison population. He endorsed all 10 bills in a "criminal reform package," sponsored by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of the Legislature.
 
"For too long, Louisiana has had the highest incarceration rate in the nation," Edwards said. "We will begin to reverse that trend very soon."
 
In total, the Pew Charitable Trust has estimated the implementation of the bills will reduce the state's prison population by 10 percent over the next decade. The savings the state will generate for no longer housing those inmates is projected to be $262 million, of which 70 percent has been obligated for programs to rehabilitate offenders and support victims.
 
Most significantly, the package of bills aims to overhaul sentencing in the state criminal codes. The package will reduce mandatory minimums, trim sentences and give some inmates access to parole eligibility sooner. It creates a medical furlough program, which allows the sickest inmates to temporarily receive treatment off site, and be eligible for Medicaid, which saves the state on medical costs. The package overhauls drug sentencing, allowing lighter sentences based on weights, and streamlines the state's many incongruous theft penalties. One bill in the package will limit how often juvenile offenders can receive life without parole sentences.
 
The measure also expands prison alternatives, like drug court, and expand safety nets for people getting out of jail and returning to their communities, by reducing their financial burdens and helping them have better access to jobs. Another bill will help improve the way victims are notified when offenders have parole hearings or are released.
 
"This is bold. This is big. And this is reform," said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, as he presented the final legislation to the House floor.

Rebekah Allen from www.theadvocate.com

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