La. House approves cornerstone of criminal justice reform

La. House approves cornerstone of criminal justice reform

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - An effort to overhaul Louisiana's criminal justice system overcame a big hurdle Monday at the state capitol.

With rarely seen bipartisan support, the House voted to approve three key bills that are part of an overall reform package. The Senate passed several other reform bills as well.

Louisiana currently ranks at the top in terms of incarceration rates nationwide, with more people locked up per capita than any other state. The Pew Institute estimates these bills will lead to a 10 percent reduction in the state's prison population over the next decade. It will also potentially save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of that money will be reinvested in prison alternatives, such as drug rehabilitation.

"This is bold. This is big. And this is reform," said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma. "We have the district attorneys on board, we have the sheriffs on board, we have the victims on board, we have everybody on board. It's time to send the message that this is Louisiana and it's a new day. We do things differently now."

Overall the bills reduce sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and give some inmates access to parole sooner. It would also reduce certain sentences for drug offenses.

They 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.

Not all were on board however, including Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, who took to the House floor to speak in protest. "The fact that we have high incarceration rates driven by crime, that we're dealing with crime and that's why we have these high rates," he said.

The bills have been extensively amended while making their way through the capitol. They were originally more ambitious, including revisions to sentences for violent offenders. Those changes were largely removed from the bills as part of a compromise with DAs and the sheriffs.

However, the revised bills would allow parole for a group of more than 100 inmates convicted of second degree murder in the 1970s. They were originally gr anted parole when they entered prison, but that was retroactively taken away by the legislature.

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 success of the bills is a win for the Democratic governor, who pushed for prison reform during his campaign in 2015. "For too long, Louisiana has had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. We will begin to reverse that trend very soon," Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement.

Edwards went on to say that Monday's votes demonstrate "that we can find bipartisanship and collaboration among our elected leaders in Louisiana on tough initiatives that prioritize the best interests of our people." Several of the governor's other goals for the session, including tax reform, died after facing pushback from Republicans.

The House bills now return to the Senate for final approval.

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