Report from Louisiana: Controversial Criminal Justice Reform

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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 130 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.

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.