Relatives of murder victims recently appeared before a state legislative task force that’s been assigned to look at the consequences for people convicted of second-degree murder in Louisiana. Its members are considering whether a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole should be required in all cases.
Criminal justice reform advocates feel there’s ample opportunity to shorten the sentences of some offenders who face automatic life in prison. But family members at the Nov. 7 task force hearing, to the person, were staunchly opposed to any leniency in punishment — with some calling for resumption of the death penalty. Louisiana last executed a condemned prisoner, who refused his appeals, in 2010.
People serving life sentences made up the next-to-largest portion of Louisiana’s incarcerated population as of July 31, according to the state Department of Corrections and Public Safety. Out of more than 28,000 people in prison at the time, 15% were serving life terms — second only to those sentenced to seven to 10 years who account for 17.8%.
It’s against this backdrop that Gov.-elect Jeff Landry will be sworn in January, with plans to make good on his promise to address violent crime soon after taking office. Landry has said he intends to call the legislature into a special session on crime, but he’s yet to bring forward an agenda or any proposals for lawmakers to consider.
At Tuesday’s news conference in Lafayette, Landry did not offer any details on when the special sessions might take place, only stressing that they remain a priority. It’s logical that the governor-elect would seek legislative input for his crime agenda, if for no other reason than to make sure his own proposals encounter smooth sailing.
Crime is just one issue Landry has made a special session priority. There’s also the insurance crisis and a Jan. 15 deadline the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has set for the creation of a new Louisiana congressional map. Unless current Gov. John Bel Edwards calls another redistricting session — he’s undecided and current legislative leaders aren’t so inclined, per The Advocate — Landry and the legislature will need more time from the court to revise the maps.
Constitutional procedure won’t allow Landry to meet the mid-January deadline, even if he calls for a redistricting session Jan. 8, the day he’s sworn into office.
With Landry in charge and an increased conservative Republican majority seated in the legislature, the climate doesn’t appear friendly for proposals that would winnow away strict sentencing guidelines or any other legislation to steer offenders away from prison.
The best place to turn for what Landry might have on his crime-fighting agenda can be found in bills Edwards has vetoed during his tenure. They have included measures to:
- deny parole to “dangerous” offenders, as determined by a district attorney and confirmed by a court, until 85% of their sentence was served;
- create the crime of approaching within 25 feet of a police officer while they are engaged in law enforcement duties;
- create a registry of offenders convicted of aggravated battery against minors;
- allow 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system, starting with their arrest and not their indictment or conviction;
- create the crime of discrimination based on vaccination status;
- start a registry for anyone convicted of crimes for the manufacturing or production on methamphetamines;
- roll back “good time” provisions for nonviolent offenders who are convicted four times or more, requiring them to serve additional time in prison before qualifying for parole or probation;
- increase penalties for simple theft when the crime involves an assault against a store employee; and
- reduce “good time” persons convicted in the death of a peace officer can earn.
Landry might also choose to revive his so-called “Truth and Transparency” bill to make public the names of accused juvenile offenders in Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes. Opponents have criticized its isolation on the state’s three largest urban centers — this year’s version excluded the other 61 parishes — and disregard for the lasting stigma on youth who end up vindicated.
Another source for Landry’s legislative fodder will be the Louisiana Violent Crime Task Force, a group separate from the second-degree murder cohort. It’s composed of lawmakers, law enforcement and criminal justice stakeholders. Then-state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, created the panel in this year’s session as he struggled to gain support for his “raise the age” bill for accused 17-year-olds. Seabaugh has since been elected to the Louisiana Senate, which becomes more conservative as a result and will provide less of a bulwark against far-right crime proposals.
The Violent Crime Task Force has a Dec. 31 reporting deadline for any policy recommendations it wants to share with the legislature. In the resolution that created the body, Seabaugh makes clear his intent to undo Edwards’ Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which had bipartisan support from lawmakers, to lower the state’s prison population.
At its Oct. 19 meeting, the task force heard from advocates for crime survivors, equitable justice and prison alternatives. They asked that members consider the consequences of incarcerating more people for longer sentences, noting the correctional system’s current lack of resources to provide mental health care and constitutionally required settings and services for juveniles. Support and compensation for victims has also increased as a result of JRI-inspired measures, they noted.
Michael Cahoon, an organizer with the Promise of Justice Initiative, pointed out at last month’s hearing that the Louisiana House Committee on Criminal Justice has considered more than 1,000 bills since the JRI proposals were approved and between 500 and 600 of them were approved. The JRI package consisted of 11 bills, for which tough-on-crime lawmakers now want to see data to show if there was a corresponding benefit, whether through a reduction in crime or benefit to survivors and society. Cahoon suggested lawmakers seek comparable data for the hundreds of other laws that have been approved.
As the holidays approach and legislative activity slows to halt, it might not be until after Landry takes office that we gain a true idea of what criminal proposals he has in store. His transition advisory councils have met privately, and lawmakers won’t convene until their organizational session on Jan. 8. As with redistricting, the legislature cannot pull together officially for at least another week after its members take office.
To borrow from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the one thing we can depend on when it comes to Louisiana’s crime policy is change.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.