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Governor’s crime plan would make La. prison system more strict

Some of the proposed legislation would make all state prisoners serve 85% of their sentences before they’re eligible for early release as a reward for good behavior

Louisiana State Penitentiary

The new proposals, which the Legislature is debating in a special session Landry convened to tackle lawlessness, promise to align the state’s justice system with the governor’s tough-on-crime vision.

Louisiana DOC

By James Finn
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — Lawmakers and justice system officials have highlighted this week how Republican Gov. Jeff Landry’s ambitious crime agenda will undo the core of Louisiana’s sweeping public safety overhaul from seven years ago.

But a review of how state laws changed before and after the 2017 effort, known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative or JRI, shows legislation Landry is pushing through the Capitol is poised to make the state’s sentencing codes even stricter than before the JRI took effect.

One Landry-backed bill would eliminate parole in most cases. Before 2017, prisoners with two felonies on their records became parole-eligible after serving a third of their sentences, and those jailed for a violent offense were eligible after 75% of their terms.

Other proposed legislation would make all state prisoners serve 85% of their sentences before they’re eligible for early release as a reward for good behavior. Pre-2017, first-time nonviolent offenders became eligible for that perk after serving 40% of their sentences. A 2017 bill passed as part of the JRI cut that portion to 35%.

The new proposals, which the Legislature is debating in a special session Landry convened to tackle lawlessness, promise to align the state’s justice system with the conservative governor’s tough-on-crime vision. His allies say toughening sentences and slashing chances for early release will bring greater justice to victims. The session comes on the heels of a surge in violent crime that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic — a focal point of Landry’s gubernatorial campaign.

But crime analysts, including some conservatives, say the session’s 37 bills spell a sobering turn seven years after the state set out to trim its highest-in-the-nation prison rolls and steer its justice system in a more rehabilitative direction.

“We’re not even going to go back to where we were (before 2017),” said former Rep. Joe Marino, now a judge, who was a lead negotiator of the 2017 package. “We’re going to be worse.”

In the Legislature, Landry’s agenda has so far faced little pushback.

Though Democrats in both chambers hammered Republicans with questions about Landry’s favored bills Thursday, the GOP’s dual supermajorities in the House and Senate had little difficulty advancing the legislation. The exception was a bill to put the public defense system under Landry’s control.

The House approved measures to expand immunity for police officers, limit post-conviction plea applications from prisoners and toughen carjacking penalties, among several others. The Senate, meanwhile, signed off on long-time conservative priorities such as legalizing the carrying of handguns without permits and sending 17-year-olds to the adult justice system.

“The Louisiana Freedom Caucus takes seriously the rampant crime problem in Louisiana today,” Rep. Beryl Amedee, R- Gray, said in a statement announcing the ultra-conservative group’s support for bills approved Thursday. “We are grateful to Governor Jeff Landry for calling this special session to deal with these issues.”

Concealed carry

Conservatives have sought for years to pass the concealed carry bill but came up short due to the potential for former Gov. John Bel Edwards to veto legislation, opposition from law enforcement and a mass shooting that made the bill politically unpalatable.

Supporters term the legislation the “constitutional carry” bill because they argue it restores a right to uninhibited weapons ownership laid out in the U.S. ' founding document. Also pushing for the bill are gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association. More than two dozen other states have similar laws.

The legislation died in 2022 in part because it came up days after a man toting a rifle killed 21 people inside an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas . The following year, its sponsor, Rep. Danny McCormick, R- Oil City, chose to let it die rather than let opponents amend it in a Senate committee.

“Now you have a governor who will sign it,” Landry said in his opening address for the session.

Sen. Blake Miguez, R- New Iberia, is carrying the bill this time around. The measure would let people older than 18 legally carry a concealed firearm without a permit. Louisiana already lets residents carry an openly displayed weapon without a permit.

Opposing the bill is Louisiana’s main police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, whose leader wrote in an email to state senators Thursday morning that letting people carry concealed weapons without requiring a permit “undermines the safety of both law enforcement officers and the general public.”

“By eliminating the requirement for individuals to obtain a permit, we are effectively removing a crucial layer of accountability and screening that helps prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands,” Louisiana FOP President Darrell B. Basco wrote to lawmakers.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell also opposed the bill Wednesday, saying to WDSU television that it would take her city “in the wrong direction, and definitely at the wrong time.” It was Cantrell’s first criticism of a specific bill in the package, after she blasted the entire session agenda on Tuesday.

Despite pushback, the bill passed 28-10 on the Senate floor, advancing to the House.

“This legislation is about making Louisiana a safer place to live,” Miguez said when he asked lawmakers to vote for the bill. “Constitutional carry gives criminals a reason to fear any potential victim...the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Juvenile justice

Though it took effect after the JRI, another effort by Louisiana to form a more therapeutic justice system came through a law enacted in 2019, known as “Raise the Age,” that moved 17-year-olds from the adult justice system to the youth one. The measure aligned Louisiana with most of the rest of the country and formed a plank of its long-running attempt to reform notoriously brutal youth prisons.

Seventeen-year-olds would once again be tried as adults under legislation approved by the Senate Thursday on a near-party line vote, 30-9. Sens. Ed Price of Gonzalez and Jay Luneau of Alexandria were the only Democrats who voted for the legislation, Senate Bill 3.

Sen. Heather Cloud, R- Turkey Creek, the bill’s sponsor, said prosecutors and sheriffs pushed for it to toughen penalties for 17-year-olds as a way of reducing crime.

Republicans rejected amendments offered by Democrats to ensure that 17-year-olds are confined in areas separate from adults and to ensure that the imprisoned youth receive schooling and vocational tech training.

“When these young people get out, if they’re placed in adult facilities, do you think they’ll be better? I’m here to tell you (they’re) not,” said Sen. Royce Duplessis, D- New Orleans.

The full House is poised to vote Friday on bills to expand Louisiana’s death penalty methods to include electrocution and nitrogen gas hypoxia as well as seal records related to companies that provide lethal injection drugs.

The two Landry-backed bills targeting parole and good-time release are also up for votes in the full House.

Staff writers Meghan Friedmann and Tyler Bridges and Capitol News Bureau Editor Jessica Williams contributed to this report.


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