Louisiana moves closer to final passage of tough-on-crime bills that could overhaul justice system

Louisiana, a state grappling with one of the highest rates of incarceration and violent crime in the country, is on the cusp of overhauling parts of its criminal justice system as the state’s GOP-dominated legislature barrels ahead with a package of bills — ranging from expanding death row execution methods, charging 17-year-olds as adults and eliminating the opportunity of parole for most jailed in the future.

Spurred by violent crimes plaguing urban areas, gut-wrenching testimony from victims and a new tough-on-crime Governor, lawmakers returned to the capitol Monday with a sense of urgency for their second week of a Special Legislative Session. In the coming days, legislators will continue debate, and likely take a final vote, on bills that if passed would scale back or completely reverse historic bipartisan reforms passed in 2017 that aimed to reduce the state’s prison population.

Republicans say the reforms — which included softening harsh sentencing, created more opportunities for parole and expanded prisoner rehabilitation programs — have failed to provide substantial justice for victims and allows dangerous criminals back on the streets.

But Democrats fear proposed legislation — which is being advanced at a dizzying pace — could hinder any progress the state has made over the years and wouldn’t deter crime. Opponents say this session’s Republican-authored bills are “reactive” and give a “false sense of immediate gratification” when the state needs to dig deeper down to the root of the issue and take a more “holistic approach”, including additional funding and programs to address drug addiction, mental health, education and improving outcomes for prisoners who re-enter society.

No matter which side of the political aisle lawmakers fall on though, they all agree that something must be done to subdue violent crime in the state. As in other parts of the country, violence surged in Louisiana following the onset of COVID-19. And while data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that crime has steadily decreased in Louisiana over the past decade, cities continue to struggle with one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the nation.

The debate over how to address crime — including how long someone should go to prison, how to handle juvenile offenders and if and when those incarcerated deserve a second chance — is occurring across the country.

In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved an overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws that eliminates parole eligibility for certain violent offenses. In Georgia, lawmakers approved legislation that requires cash bail for 30 additional crimes, including 18 that are always or often misdemeanors. Just last month in Maryland, political leaders unveiled legislation meant to increase accountability for juvenile offenders and the adults who run the juvenile justice system.

Similar pieces of legislation are being proposed in Louisiana under a “crime-focused” package that conservative Gov. Jeff Landry, a former sheriff’s deputy and Attorney General, named as a priority during his gubernatorial campaign.

One priority during this short legislative session has been addressing juvenile crime.

Republicans say that youths are terrorizing cities and being charged for violent carjackings, shootings and homicides. They argue that, under proposed legislation, 17-year-olds should be prosecuted as adults. While critics of the bill agree that juvenile lawbreakers should be held accountable, they have raised safety and recidivism concerns.

Proposed sweeping legislative changes that could determine how long certain incarcerated people remain in prison, and when or if they would be allowed a second chance at freedom, are also being debated. Among the legislation is a bill that would effectively eliminate parole for those convicted after Aug. 1, with few exceptions.

In an effort to resume Louisiana’s death row executions that have been paused for 14 years, there is also a bill on the table this session that seeks to add nitrogen gas and electrocution as methods to carry out capital punishment.

While the legislature has until the evening of March 6 to adjourn, it is expected that they will finish their work this week. Lawmakers will return to the capitol March 11 for their three-month-long regular session, in which they can take up additional crime-related bills.


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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