Louisiana breaks new ground in sentencing
In mid-June 2001 the Louisiana House put final
approval on a Senate bill (SB 239 approved overwhelmingly in
May) by a 65-35 vote, with minor changes. Gov. M.J. "Mike"
Foster (D) supported the legislation and signed the bill into
SB 239 marks a dramatic turnaround for Louisiana, which currently
boasts the nation's highest per capita incarceration rate. Once
signed into law, the bill will:
- End mandatory minimum sentences for a wide
variety of non-violent crimes ranging from skimming gambling
profits to promotion of obscene devices and also including drug
offenses. The 4-year minimum sentence for heroin possession,
for example, may now be suspended or served on probation. In
a successful amendment in the House, video voyeurism, arson of
a church and weapons possession will still mandate mandatory
- Reduce drug possession and sales sentences.
Sale of heroin, currently punishable by a life sentence, will
now draw a sentence of 5-to-50 years. For possession or possession
with intent of more than 60 pounds of marijuana, the sentence
range is halved to 5-to-30 years. Methamphetamine manufacturing
sentences were reduced most dramatically, from 40-to-99 years
to 10-to-30 years. Cocaine distribution drops from a 5-year minimum
sentence to a 2-year minimum.
- Set up a panel to review currently incarcerated
inmates and determine whether they should be eligible for early
- Change the state's habitual offender law,
so that before someone can be sentenced to life under its provisions,
he/she must have been convicted of two violent felonies. Under
current law, any felony convictions count.
"This is a dramatic improvement,"
Baton Rouge attorney Lennie Perez told DRCNet. Perez, who heads
the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' legislative
office, helped draft the legislation. "This was an across-the-board
effort to eliminate mandatory minimums on non-violent crimes,
and while there was some give and take, especially in the House,
it was very important that the bill got passed," said Perez.
"It sets us in the right direction for the future."
It was tough political fighting, Perez said. "The reforms
got a lot of opposition on the floor of the House," he said.
"They tried to water it down. But we had the upper hand
in conference committee and were able to keep drug sentencing
reforms in the bill. That lets a lot of people, a lot of kids
on the street, back in the sentencing reform, and that's important."
Legislators who argued for the bill said it would save the state
tens of millions of dollars in prison costs. Louisiana spends
$600 million annually to house some 36,000 prisoners, 15,000
of them drug offenders, according to the state corrections department.
Rep. Willie Hunter (D-Monroe), one of the bill's House floor
managers told his fellow solons the state would save $63 million,
which could be used to fund drug courts and other alternatives
According to press accounts, the bill passed because of an unusual
meeting of the minds among criminal defense lawyers, district
attorneys, New Orleans judges (who administer the state's only
drug court) and victims' rights groups. Perez agreed.
"The only group to really work with us was the New Orleans
criminal judges, who were concerned that the original draft didn't
have drug sentencing reforms," Perez told DRCNet. "They
have a certain amount of influence, and getting rid of the mandatory
minimums on heroin was really important to them so they could
get people into drug courts. Over that there was a major battle
between the judges and the district attorneys because the bill
allows judges to get people into drug court without seeking the
permission of the prosecutor."
But, said Perez, the DAs and the victims' rights groups also
got on board-or at least, got out of the way. "We managed
to get the DAs to not fight the bill and by making a few concessions
on violent criminals, we managed to bring the major victims'
rights groups onboard."
Political leadership also played a role, Perez said. "This
is scary for politicians," he said. "One Willie Horton
is all it takes. The only way to get legislators to vote for
this was to give them political cover, and Gov. Foster did that.
He was willing to step out in front; he was on the budgetary
hotseat. To the governor's credit, he worked this with the legislature;
he got on the radio; he spoke before the committees."
Key legislators also played a crucial role. "Sen. Charles
Jones (D-Monroe) and Sen. Donald Cravins (D-Lafayette) were really
the energy behind the bill, and Senate president John Hainkel
(R-New Orleans) really set the tone when he got on board,"
said Perez. Hainkel agreed that the financial costs associated
with prisons is terrible, but went on to add that, "from
a moral standpoint, it's worse."
"Is this the first time a politician, and a Republican no
less, has admitted that sentencing practices have become immoral?
It remains to be seen if the feds will ever draw the same conclusion,"
wrote federal prisoner Gary Callahan about the hopeful legislation.
More reform efforts could be coming down the Pike, according
to Perez. "We'll see how this works in the next couple of
years, and then we just might try for more," he said. "Louisianans
may not be liberals, but we're pretty easy goin'. It's too hot
to get all wound up."
The full text of the bill is available online at:
(Source: The Week Online with DRCNet,