Louisiana moves closer to final passage of tough-on-crime bills that could overhaul justice system

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana, a state struggling with some of the highest rates of incarceration and violent crime in the country, is poised to overhaul parts of its criminal justice system as the state’s Republican Party-dominated Legislature advances a package of bills — ranging of expanding execution methods on death row, charging 17-year-olds as adults and eliminating the chance of parole for most inmates in the future.

Spurred by violent crimes plaguing urban areas, heartbreaking testimonies from victims and a new governor cracking down on crime, lawmakers returned to the capital Monday with a sense of urgency for their second week of a special legislative session. In the coming days, lawmakers will continue debate, and likely take a final vote, on bills that, if passed, would roll back historic bipartisan reforms passed in 2017 that aimed to reduce the state’s prison population or reverse completely.

Republicans say the reforms — which include softening harsh sentences, creating more opportunities for parole and expanding prisoner rehabilitation programs — have failed to provide substantive justice for victims and put dangerous criminals back on the streets .

But Democrats fear the proposed legislation — which is being pushed through at a dizzying pace — could hamper the progress the state has made over the years and would not deter crime. Opponents say this session’s Republican-authored bills are “reactive” and provide a “false sense of instant gratification” when the state needs to dig deeper to the root of the issue and take a more “holistic approach,” including additional financing and programs. to address drug addiction, mental health, education and improve outcomes for prisoners re-entering society.

Regardless of which side of the political aisle lawmakers are on, they all agree that something must be done to curb violent crime in the state. As in other parts of the country, violence increased in Louisiana after the outbreak of COVID-19. And while data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that crime in Louisiana has steadily declined over the past decade, cities continue to suffer from some of the highest murder rates per capita in the country.

The debate over how to tackle crime – including how long someone should go to prison, how to deal with juvenile delinquents and whether and when inmates deserve a second chance – is taking place across the country.

In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved an overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws that eliminates the right to parole for certain violent crimes. In Georgia, lawmakers have passed legislation requiring cash bail for 30 additional crimes, including 18 that are always or often crimes. Just last month, political leaders in Maryland unveiled legislation aimed at increasing accountability for juvenile offenders and the adults who run the juvenile justice system.

Similar pieces of legislation are being proposed in Louisiana under a “crime-focused” package that conservative Gov. Jeff Landry, a former sheriff’s deputy and attorney general, identified as a priority during his gubernatorial campaign.

One priority during this short term was tackling juvenile crime.

Republicans say young people are terrorizing cities and are being charged with violent carjackings, shootings and murders. They argue that 17-year-olds should be prosecuted as adults under the proposed legislation. While critics of the bill agree that juvenile lawbreakers should be held accountable, they have raised concerns about safety and recidivism.

Major changes to the law are also being debated that could determine how long certain incarcerated people stay in prison, and when and if they would get a second chance at freedom. Among the legislation is a bill that would effectively eliminate parole for those sentenced after August 1, with some exceptions.

In an effort to resume death row executions in Louisiana, which have been suspended for 14 years, a bill is also on the table this session that would add nitrogen gas and electrocution as methods of carrying out the death penalty.

Although the legislature has until the evening of March 6 to adjourn, they are expected to complete their work this week. Lawmakers will return to the capital on March 11 for their three-month regular session, during which they could consider additional crime-related bills.