Louisiana's Hyped Criminal-Justice Overhaul Under Review


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — It was a historic reform in the incarceration capital of the nation, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said as lawmakers gathered last year to celebrate their sweeping overhaul of the state's criminal justice system. Democrats and Republicans embraced each other. A jazz band played. Praise was heaped on the faith-based groups and civil-liberties advocates that helped to edge the package of laws to passage.

"Let us remember that this is the day that we chose to build something better," Edwards, a Democrat, said in June 2017.

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But now, months after the rewrite of Louisiana's criminal justice codes became law, a flurry of proposals to change the policies, including a wide-ranging bill that already has won unanimous Senate support, have emerged at a dizzying pace. Advocates who were instrumental in getting the initial overhaul passed last year said they feel blindsided.

The prosecutors and judges who are pushing for changes say they are trying to fix unforeseen problems that have arisen from the overhaul. The governor has said he's open to adjustments.

"You can slice it a hundred different ways, but the people on the ground have come to an agreement that these (changes to the laws) are necessary," said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

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Some argue it's too soon to start tinkering with the new laws, which soften the harsh approach on sentencing and prisoner rehabilitation that Louisiana maintained even after the state's Deep South neighbors moved away from such practices.

"My problem is that we haven't seen enough time go by to see what those unintended consequences are," said James Dixon, who represented the Louisiana Public Defender Board on the task force that informed last year's package of laws.

"It seems like everything is being rolled back. I mean they're falling over each other to roll back," he said.

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At least 10 proposals targeting aspects of the overhaul have been introduced during the current legislative session, with lawmakers taking aim at provisions that shorten probation periods, let sick inmates get medical treatment outside prison and limit aspects of the state's habitual offender sentencing law.

As the legislative session heads to a close, a wide-ranging bill that combines elements of many of those proposals has won unanimous Senate support and awaits a House vote, scheduled for Tuesday.

The overhaul caps the maximum probationary period for most nonviolent offenders at three years. It also lets probation officers decide if someone should have their probation shortened for good behavior. The new bill would allow judges to add an additional two years to a person's probation, and make judges the ones who decide the question of shortened probation.

The efforts to undo parts of the overhaul come as no surprise to Flozell Daniels Jr., the president and CEO of the advocacy group Foundation for Louisiana, who was on last year's task force.

"It was to be expected. Last year was a street fight," he said. "They're really driving in multiple lanes to reverse the progress we've made."

When the wide-ranging bill was introduced in a Senate committee, sponsoring Sen. Dan Claitor, a Republican from Baton Rouge, and Adams, with the district attorneys association, framed it as a compromise hashed out between the governor's office, prosecutors, corrections department officials and judges. Edward's staffers also said the governor's office was consulting with advocacy groups that had worked for the initial overhaul, according to Adams.

Mary-Patricia Wray, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that's not true. She said no one told center staffers about the meetings and she only learned about the new bill from a news reporter.

"I really don't think it's asking too much to give the stakeholders — hundreds and thousands of people who came to this Capitol over the last two years — a little bit of time to look at these," Wray told the Senate committee.

The governor's office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

A Democrat on the Senate committee urged his counterparts to put the bill on hold until everyone was made aware of its details, but the measure was approved nonetheless.

Claitor said it's difficult to strike a balance between all the different groups involved, but he said he's tried to take a more universal approach than some of his counterparts.

"There's plenty of unhappiness to be shared," he said.

– by Anthony Izaguirre, AP reporter

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