Report from Louisiana: Controversial Criminal Justice Reform

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPOT — Last week Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator visited with Erin McCarty and Robert J. Wright on our local 710 KEEL radio about Governor John Bel Edwards touted Criminal Justice Reform.

The bipartisan legislation revamping the way Louisiana deals with criminals and crime was passed in 2017 in an attempt to lower Louisiana’s notoriously high incarceration rate.  The reform bill was authored by six Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent.  Those designations mean little though; in Louisiana all you have to do to get re-elected to the other side of the legislative chamber is change your political affiliation, if not your beliefs.

In a meeting with President Donald Trump in early August, Governor John Bel Edwards said, “In Louisiana, we’re proud of the work we’ve done. It’s been sentencing reform, prison reform, and a real focus on reentry and for the first time in 20 years, I can tell you Louisiana does not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation today.”

In 2017, U.S. News and World Report listed the top ten states with the highest incarceration rate in the nation and Louisiana was number one, and designated the prison capital of the world.

Everyone agrees there is a problem here but consensus begins to diverge when we begin to nail down what those problems are and how to solve them.  Senator John Kennedy, (R-LA) is one of those voices against the new reforms:  “Well, the governor and I just disagree,” said Kennedy. “He thinks our problem in Louisiana is we have too many prisoners. I think our problem is we have too many people committing crimes.”

Sheriff Prator is more specific.  In his visit on KEEL radio last week he enumerated several changes he believes are problematic.  One of his concerns is that the re-entry programs that are supposed to help the newly released acclimate into society are not yet in place.  “We’re designing the bus while we’re driving the bus,” he said, “and somebody is gonna get killed, and people are getting killed…”.

Sheriff Prator is referring to two prisoners who were arrested on drug charges that were released in November, who have now committed murder, and have been rearrested.  One of these was in Ouachita Parish and the other in Bossier Parish.

These re-entry programs are supposed to be funded in part by the savings gained from lowering the incarceration rate.  Sheriff Prator directs citizens to page 38 of the Practitioners Guide for the new reforms which explains that in the first year, 35% of the savings will go to the Office of Juvenile Justice for Strategic Investments and to the Department of corrections for the same purpose.  Nobody has said what those strategic investments are; Sheriff Prator did not know.

Still in the first year, 14% of the savings will go to Victims’ services (this number drops to 10% after the first year.) Twenty-one percent goes to “Grants: community-based programs” (drops to 15% after year 1) and 30% of the savings from early release goes to the General Fund to be spent at legislators’ discretion.

What concerns Sheriff Prator a great deal can be found on pages 6 and 7 of the Practitioner’s Guide which outlines new thresholds and penalties for non-violent crimes.  Apparently, we are not all in agreement on what “non-violent” means.  For example, under the new law, a person could barge into my home with a firearm and could be free the very next day.  This is now a probationary offense.  Specifically, the former penalty for this was mandatory five to thirty years.  Now it is 1-30 years and the one year is not mandatory, according to Sheriff Prator.

Another example: no longer considered a violent crime is “mingling harmful substances”; in other words, if someone drops a date rape drug in your drink, this is a non-violent offense.  So is extortion and a drive-by shooting if you happen to miss hitting a person.  See page 7 of the Practitioners Guide for these.

Here is the chart found on page 7 of the Guide:

Penalties for crimes have been drastically altered as well, such as debt forgiveness.  One scenario described by Sheriff Prator would be that of a repeat offender for theft, for example.  If the judge orders that person to reimburse the victim, the most they have to pay back is the equivalent of one day’s wage per month, and if they do that for one year the balance of the debt is forgiven.

Additionally, third and fourth DWI offenses are now backed down to probation and may qualify for diversion, which means that it is not recidivism if it never happened.  At least on record.

Nobody, not even Sheriff Prator, thinks our prison system was without fault before these reforms.  Everyone agrees that change was needed.  But perhaps we have once again passed a bill without really knowing what is in it.  At the very least, we have passed a bill that releases prisoners without the safety net to keep them from reoffending.  Those programs simply do not exist yet and that is not a good situation for the citizens of Louisiana or the newly released.

Read the Practitioner’s Guide; it’s not a complicated document.  You can find it here.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia.  Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.