BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Bills aimed at cutting back on Louisiana's top-ranked incarceration rate overcame their first hurdle Tuesday at the capitol, but not without an extensive rewrite.
"It makes absolutely no sense that we have to lead the world in incarcerating people, and we have to fix it," said Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie.
Lawmakers have spent days trying to find a happy medium that all parties could agree to, including the state's district attorneys.
"All of these changes are potentially good, but for nonviolent offenders only," said Pete Adams, head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.
As amended, the bills enacted a long, laundry list of reforms, including reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses like drug crimes,
reducing how long convicts must be behind bars before they can get access to parole, and reducing the "cleansing period" for nonviolent habitual offenders.
Another bill would allow prisoners to be furloughed to receive medical treatment at separate facilities. Such a move would allow the state to unlock federal Medicaid dollars to pay for the medical treatment, thus reducing the millions of dollars the state spends on prisoners each year.
The proposals have the backing of the governor, who told the committee it's time to be smart and not just tough on crime.
"For too long we've legislated by anecdote, we've built the criminal around the most extreme situations instead of grounding our laws on data and research," said Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The proposed reforms are based on ideas from a task force which met over the last year to iron out ways of reining in the prison population and reducing
the costs of corrections. The task force report included ideas about leniency for violent offenders, including a chance at parole for those currently sentenced to life behind bars.
Some of the proposals were scrubbed from the bills after facing push back from DAs and the families of victims.
"If it happened to someone in your family, would you being sitting with them or would you be sitting with us," asked Catalene Theriot, the head of the Voices of Innocent Citizens Empowered, a support group for the family members of the victims of violence.
As part of a compromise with the DAs, lawmakers also scrapped a plan to create a class system for certain felonies. Ranked by severity, under the class system, worse crimes would face harsher penalties. The bill now calls for the establishment of a task force to study the idea further.
The bills now head to the Senate floor for consideration.