(WAFB) - The task force Governor John Bel Edwards challenged to come up with bold changes to decrease Louisiana's high incarceration rate took a big step forward Thursday.
It came after three hours of strong opinions from the public.
They filled two rooms of the state capitol, people for and against reducing the Louisiana prison population, waiting to plead their cases to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force. Among them was Kelly Suire. Her mother, Carrie Billeaud, was murdered inside their family business more than a decade ago. She says the pain still runs deep.
"We have not healed. It's a constant battle," said Suire.
Suire and other members of the group, Victims of Innocent Citizens Empowered, or VOICE, packed the meeting to make sure their message was heard.
"Violent criminals need to stay behind bars," said Suire.
District attorneys from across the state, including 23rd judicial DA Ricky Babin, warned task force members to proceed with caution when labeling inmates as "non-violent" offenders.
"There's not a single person we did not put in prison that did not deserve to be there," said Babin.
On the other end of the argument were local community groups such as Louisiana for Prison Alternatives. They turned the microphone over to a former inmate, who served ten years behind bars in connection to a murder.
"I have a husband and three beautiful children. I was supposed to spend the rest of my life in prison and there are a lot of people that because of being juveniles and not knowing how they know to deal with the situation, they are put in prison, they wind up losing their whole life," said Misty, a former inmate.
President of the Louisiana State Bar Association, Darryl Papillion, encouraged the task force to remain tough on crime, but to be smart about it too.
"So many of these people, when they get out, they really have no access to help with the kinds of things that often times put them in prison in the first place," said Papillion.
The goal, he says, is working with young offenders to keep them from becoming adult prisoners. The task force decided to move forward with six recommendations aimed at keeping the state prison population down and saving Louisiana money. Victims of crime want to make sure they are not forgotten in the process.
"If you've never been a victim of a murder or something as violent as murder, put yourselves in our shoes and understand where we are coming from," said Suire.
The six recommendations passed by the task force are listed below.
- Ensure that inmates sentenced to life imprisonment who have demonstrated substantial growth behind bars receive an opportunity for release by creating a parole valve for current and future inmates who have served 30 years behind bars and reached the age of 50, excluding those sentenced for first degree murder. At present, there are an estimated 570 currently incarcerated inmates who would meet the criteria for parole consideration.
- Ensure that long-serving inmates who have demonstrated substantial growth behind bars receive an opportunity for release by returning eligibility for “old-timer” parole to include inmates convicted of sex and violent crimes (both currently incarcerated and prospectively). This would allow this group of people to receive consideration for parole at the discretion of the Parole Board after serving 20 years behind bars and reaching the age of 45.
- 2. To ensure compliance with the Miller decision, abolish life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles sentences as adults by granting a parole review after a minimum of 30 years.
- 3. To ensure equity between pre- and post-Justice Reinvestment sentences, extend the prospective parole change, setting parole eligibility at 55 percent of time-served, to currently incarcerated people convicted of violent offenses without violent or sex offense priors.
- 4. To focus habitual offender penalty enhancements on more serious crimes, a majority of the task force members recommend removing the lowest level offenses (Class D and E felony offenses) from being enhanced through the habitual offender statute.
- 5. To ensure that judges have discretion to implement adequate sentences for people convicted of felon in possession of a weapon, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for those with underlying violent or commercial drug offenses.
- 6. Because prison is the state’s most expensive criminal justice resource, and is not the most effective intervention for the least serious drug and property crimes:
- Designate drug and property crimes that fall into the least serious category of the felony class system (Class E drug and property offenses) as “jail felonies” that are ineligible for placement in state-funded prison beds, similar to the least serious felonies in Alabama’s criminal code. If a person is incarcerated for a jail felony, it would be the responsibility of the parish – not the state – to pay for that incarceration. The parish would also have paroling authority to release those inmates to prison alternatives when appropriate.
- Reinvest a portion of the savings from reductions in the state prison population into incentive grant for parishes, judicial districts, and non-profit community partner organizations to expand evidence-backed prison alternatives for offenses classified as jail felonies.
The task force will vote on a final draft of the recommendations to the legislature in two weeks.