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Task force set to release guidelines for criminal justice reform

March 15, 2017
By Jeff Beimfohr
Originally Posted on KTBS 3


Louisiana is at the bottom of far too many lists-- like education; but it's at the top of another list. Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration rates.

Critics say it's expensive-- and is not working.

In his gubernatorial campaign-- John Bel Edwards vowed to reduce the prison population by instituting new sentencing guidelines.

A task force was set to unveil its recommendations on Thursday-- designed to lower the number of inmates in Louisiana prisons and help them from becoming repeat offenders.

Louisiana spends about $600 million a year on corrections; but repeat offenders remain high. The Justice Reinvestment Task Force has put together ideas designed to address both areas.

The task force-- in its nine months of analysis-- has been led by state corrections head Jimmy LeBlanc; supported by legislators, judges, a sheriff, prosecutors, defense attorneys and religious leaders.

It is all an effort to make good on Governor John Bel Edwards' campaign promise that Louisiana will not be the incarceration capital of the world.

"When you look at Louisiana," said criminal defense attorney Elton Richey, "there's no denying the history we have as the state that literally incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere in the civilized world."

Over the next ten years task force recommendations would save the state more than $305 million; and reduce prison populations by 13 percent. That would result in 4800 fewer inmates-- but still less than the 5500 proposed by the governor.

"There's always this undercurrent that maybe the state is not approaching criminal justice in the most fiscally sound way," said political analyst Jeremy Alford, "and that will be the mantra for 2017."

Let's examine some of the numbers that illustrate the need for criminal justice reform.

Currently prison populations stand at about 35,700 across the state; the new recommendations would reduce that by 4000, by the year 2027.

Additionally, the number of people on probation and parole would drop by 16 percent-- about 11,400 people.

Those changes alone would save Louisiana $9 million in the first year.

Here's how our state compares to our neighbors-- when it comes to incarceration rates.

Louisiana has 816 prisoners per 100,000 of population; compared to 599 for Arkansas, and 584 for Texas. Reducing those numbers has attracted lots of attention-- from the ACLU to business.

"You have groups that traditionally are not interested i criminal justice reform," said Alford, "but they are now; like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry."

"They've realized," said Richey, "that a state that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, is not good for business."

Here are some of the recommendations the task force agrees on.

Most suggestions affect non-violent and low level drug offenders; penalties would be lowered; there would be more opportunities for parole; and more incentives to get off parole once they are out.

But the committee is divided on parole for those convicted of certain violent crimes. Under that controversial proposal-- inmates convicted of murder would become eligible for parole after serving thirty years or reaching age fifty; that's the "thirty Christmases rule."

Those serving sentences for rape and robbery would become parole eligible after serving 20 years-- and reaching age 45.

When it comes to the idea of reducing sentences for violent crimes, once case expected to be in the debate is that of Donzell Horgan of Bossier City.

At age 14, Hogan was arrested for robbing and killing 91-year old Ludella Scott. He is being prosecuted as an adult-- and if convicted would serve life in prison.

D-A Schuyler Marvin says Hogan should never be paroled-- even if he was a juvenile when he was arrested.

Other areas the task force agrees on: the habitual offender statute--used to stiffen penalties-- would only apply to serious first offenders. It could not be used, for instance, to create a more serious charge for simple drug possession.

The task force also wants to eliminate the mandatory 10-year minimum for felons caught with guns; violent felons would still serve a 1-year minimum. Others would serve 1-20 years at a judge's discretion.

A big area of disagreement on the task force-- comes from the powerful District Attorney's Association.

The D-A's want all violent crime sentences to be off the table; they are opposed to any early release of violent offenders.

There are many more recommendations-- but this is a good cross section.

Keep in mind-- it is all about increasing public safety-- and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It's all about the dollars and cents." Alford said.

Lafouche Parish Sheriff, Craig Webre-- says Louisiana's first in the nation incarceration rate-- grew out of a 1980's national push for law and order.

Webre says Louisiana prisons became a cottage industry-- designed to house virtually anybody sentenced to jail. Now, Webre says the state is moving away from that model.

One topic is what to do with the savings. The task force wants to reinvest much of the savings into prison alternatives like drug treatment programs.