Louisiana breaks new ground in sentencing reform

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 law.

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 minimums.
  • 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 parole hearings.
  • 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 to imprisonment.

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, Issue #191)