Criminal justice bills proposed

One would extend parole eligibility for those serving life sentences

The group Louisiana for Prison Alternatives will push two bills during the upcoming legislative session, including one that would extend parole eligibility to those serving life sentences.

The legislation was discussed during a meeting Monday at the Allen P. August Multi-Purpose Center. John Burkhart, a criminal justice reform fellow for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the legislation won’t open the door to all inmates serving life sentences. Rather, it gives them the chance to present their case to the state parole board.

“If you know anything about the parole board, it’s not a free pass,” Burkhart said. “You have people serving life sentences who were riding in a car with someone who went off and committed an act. We just don’t think that’s dignified that they’re forced for the rest of their lives to not even get a chance to go before the parole board.”

The other bill being offered this session would remove non-violent offenses from being enhanced under the state’s habitual offender statute. Burkhart said the habitual offender law “gives more leverage to plea bargains driven by the district attorney.”

“A lot of these are the cases where people have substance abuse issues,” he said. “There’s behavior or an illness that’s driving that. We should address that, rather than add on time to sentences.”

Reforms

The state’s prison population as of November 2017 — the time a 10-bill criminal justice reform package took effect — was 35,961 inmates. One year later, that dropped to 33,185 inmates. Recent numbers show 32,612 inmates, he said.

Had no reforms passed, Burkart said there would be a projected 36,278 inmates statewide.

Burkhart said the drop in inmate population was “about double what was expected.” He said a slight dip was expected in the first two or three years after the legislative package took effect.

“We’re already performing well ahead of what was anticipated,” Burkart said.

Burkhart said the percentage of inmates serving time for drug and property crimes has dropped.

People should be patient and hold agencies and others accountable in keeping the criminal justice reforms effective, Burkhart said.

“This is a long process,” he said.

Reinvestment

Burkhart said the state has realized $12.2 million in savings in the first year of the criminal justice reforms. Seventy percent, or $8.5 million, was up for reinvestment into programs to further lower the state’s prison population.

Of the $8.5 million, half will be reinvested into programs within the Department of Corrections. He said most of that will help inmates who are about to be released from custody.

“We don’t want them sitting idly with nothing to do,” Burkart said.

Another 30 percent, or $2.56 million, will go to community incentive grants that corporations can use to house newly-released inmates.

The remaining 20 percent, or $1.7 million, will go to victim services, overseen by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement. He said $300,000 will go to the Crime Victims Reparations Program, which awards financial reparations for crime victims.

The legislative session begins April 8.””Parole Eligibility graphic

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