An overview of Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice reform bills

10727833-standardIt is widely known that Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the world. This means massive numbers of families and communities have members struggling with a lifetime punishment. Fortunately, we are in an era of reform and the work of a statewide Justice Reinvestment Task Force is now into the legislative session. From now until June 16th, VOTE will be monitoring and weighing in on 31 separate pieces of legislation.

We categorize them in four areas: Voting Rights & Democracy; Sentencing, Parole & Probation Reforms; Reentry & Life with a Criminal Record; Decriminalization.

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See VOTE’s Bill Tracker web page, for updates on hearing dates, locations, and results.

Voting Rights & Democracy:

SUPPORT
HB235 would create a question on the Nov. 2018 ballot, asking to change the state constitution language allowing suspension of voting rights for “incarcerated” people. The current phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” creates all the confusion about people living under community supervision and why VOTE filed VOTE v. Louisiana. This proposal needs two-thirds of both the House and Senate to get on the ballot. We are strongly in favor of this moving forward to let the democratic process work and let the people decide.

HB168 simply requires the Dept. of Corrections to report to the Secretary of State when someone is released from supervision. This way the Secretary can automatically restore voting rights without requiring a person to obtain official paperwork from one state agency merely to submit it to another state agency.  This bill is in the House Government Affairs.

HB228 would stop “prison based gerrymandering,” i.e. counting people as residents of the prison they are held inside. This would stem political power from flowing to legislative districts with prisons in them. Most importantly, it would stop the perverse relationship of politicians advocating directly against the interests of people in prison, who have no power to decide their representative.

HB229 would reduce the time people have their voting rights suspended. This proposal will suspend them for three years since the time released from incarceration. People successfully integrated into the community, who are still on parole or probation, will be able to vote. Those who never serve time on a conviction (probation, without any violation) will also be allowed to vote. This compromise is not the universal voting rights sought by VOTE, and others, but it is a significant step.

VOTE OPPOSES HB256 would propose a Nov. 2018 ballot initiative for constitutional amendment that places a 15-year bar on people running for office, or being appointed to office, after the end of their felony sentence (and a 5-year bar after a misdemeanor). This is inherently anti-democracy, as it would keep people from electing the leaders of their choice.

Sentencing, Parole, and Probation Reforms:

SUPPORT
SB220 would create a comprehensive and sensible class system for felony crimes. This is a no-brainer for anyone working in the system, no matter how they feel about incarceration. It would amend some thresholds for drug and property crimes to make them more rational.

HB316   would increase time off for good behavior (“Good Time”), and be retroactive for people convicted of lesser crimes. This is a significant step, part of an overall reform movement, but is not far enough. Retroactivity should apply to people serving the longest sentences. Just as lesser crimes generate sentences too long, so do more serious crimes.

SB139 would place a 3-year cap on probation, allow Good Time credit while on community supervision, and expand eligibility to incarceration alternatives. This should alleviate some burden on people who have proven their success. It does not support people in the early portions of their term (when times are toughest), but it will create some incentive. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the supervisor to punish someone for small violations without incarceration. Once that decision is made, people tend to lose any job, housing or possessions they might have accumulated.

HB249  would levy fines and fees upon someone based on their ability to pay. For decades, lawmakers have created one more fee on top of the last, to the point where people’s lives resemble something out of the 19th century. “Ability to Pay” cannot be based on one’s lifetime possibility of ever having a decent job. The pressure of collection, and limitations on normal life (such as drivers licenses) is weighted net placed on poor communities that must be lifted. The Warrant Clinic at VOTE last month was a jubilee, where approximately $2 million of debts were forgiven for hundreds of people. These people were never going to have the money to pay, and yet the courts were never goig to stop issuing warrants and demands.

HB101 and SB 142  would eliminate the death penalty, the most cruel and inhumane punishment. History has shown that many innocent people have been on death row, and some have been executed. The process is costly in every way.

SB221 would amend the Habitual Offender law so low level crimes can’t be used after five years. Too many people are threatened into lengthy sentences by this law, merely due to a series of petty offenses (including offenses they may not have actually done).

SB146 would reduce the cleansing period of old convictions (from 10 years down to 5) regarding the Habitual Offender sentence enhancement. This would NOT apply to crimes of violence (R.S. 14:2(B)) or sex offenses (15:541). This is yet another example of how the already longer punishment for more serious crimes turns into longer secondary punishments after that sentence ends. The other interesting piece of this bill is it allows a judge to consider a sentence “excessive” and provide that a person who receives “Life” under the Habitual Offender statute may be parole eligible after 35 years. Considering that most people facing such a Life sentence will be over 30 years old, this is creating another form of Geriatric Parole. In such a case, a person has already served time on each of the previous convictions, is receiving time on the new conviction, and to add 35 years without parole as an enhancement is not the sort of “reform” that will get Louisiana out from the title of America’s Most Incarcerated.

VOTE OPPOSES SB16  and  HB45 both address the Juvenile Life Without Parole issue. Although slightly different, both bills would (1) treat children’s sentences of 1st and 2nd degree murder as the same, with only two options: Life, with or without parole; (2) Parole eligibility begins at 30 years of incarceration. This inhumane option is out of step with the nation, and unconscionable around the world. First, 1st and 2nd degree murder should have different sentence ranges (2nd Degree should allow for a term of years). Second, parole on Life should begin at 15 years for 1st degree and 10 years for 2nd. Because people’s minds are not fully developed until age 25, this would be an ideal time for the parole board to begin their inquiry and conversation with someone sentenced as a child.

VOTE OPPOSES HB50  would mandate every person on work release wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. These costs are typically passed on to the person in custody, who is also providing a large percentage of their paycheck to the jail. Whereas work release is designed not as a state revenue generator, but as a reentry program, it is counterproductive to add such fees. Furthermore, because eligibility for work release is so narrow already, the state should not be making claims of “dangerousness” about the least serious of situations.

Reentry, and Life with a Criminal Record:

SUPPORT
HB177 would stop punishing the children of parents who have drug convictions, and end the ban on federal food stamps for people with drug convictions. Other states have learned how counterproductive this optional ban has been, by further preventing people in need from accessing the very limited supports that do exist.

HB519   would expand on VOTE’s 2014 licensing victory, and the 2016 Ban the Box victory, by allowing for full occupational licensing for people with criminal records. Particularly where such people often must be entrepreneurial in spirit, Louisiana benefits by not holding back those pursuing legal upstanding professions.

HB426  would suspend child support payments during incarceration. No child ever benefitted by having a parent massively in debt, particularly on top of the other fines and fees the courts are typically seeking from someone released from prison.

SB153 would increase the state minimum wage to $8/hour, and create a civil remedy against those employers who violate the law. Many people with convictions, including those who are leaving prison, are working at or near minimum wage. These are grown adults, many who are parents, seeking to build towards a sustainable and upstanding career. Meanwhile, they likely face thousands of dollars in fines and fees, while potentially being released with absolutely no personal belongings. Louisiana needs to provide a floor of support for those working the hardest.

Decriminalization:
SUPPORT
HB61 would require police to issue a summons to people, rather than arrest, for misdemeanors and low-level theft (with a few exceptions). This will reduce the jail population on petty charges. Whatever needs to be sorted out can be done while keeping a job, a home, and/or a family as intact as possible.

SB35 would allow medical marijuana patients to be free from arrest. Currently, an arrestee must go to court and make an affirmative defense that they are a medical patient. This is a waste of resources if a patient can show their certification at the point of police contact.

HB81 would make a presumption of non-monetary bail. This may eliminate the number of people in jail charged with less serious crimes, and/or with little to no prior criminal history. This would allow thousands of people to go back to work, prepare their defense, hold on to their small resources, and save municipalities millions of dollars on needless pretrial detention.

HB409 would ensure that people are not charged with “hate crimes” when resisting arrest. The purpose of Hate Crime legislation is to express intolerance for people who target certain people for their ethnic, racial, religious, or gender identity. This has nothing to do with whether someone is allegedly being defiant when arrested for some other charge.

HB413 would fund the public defender positions at the same rate as the assistant district attorneys. For too long, the 6th Amendment Right to effective assistance of counsel has not been fulfilled. Whereas the prosecution receives more attorneys, along with massive investigative support from the police departments, the “presumption of innocence” is closer to a presumption of guilt. Louisiana needs to meet its responsibilities to its people, and/or consider that it may just be charging too many people with too many crimes.

VOTE OPPOSES HB135 would prohibit all “Sanctuary City” policies, and bar municipalities from deciding their own level of immigration enforcement activity. This bill would allow the federal agency (ICE) to dictate local police policy, and will punish a municipality by revoking all state funding. Around the nation, cities in particular have learned that aggressive immigration officials lead to communities avoiding the police when any crime occurs. This reduces public safety. Furthermore, aggressive arrests leads to lengthy and costly detentions that fracture families. This is an economic drain on that family often losing its primary breadwinner; a drain on the surrounding community attempting to absorb who remains; and a drain on the taxpayers funding the profits of federal detention facility owners, holding thousands of people for months and years on end.

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About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on www.Unprison.org.
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