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Turning Back the Clock

“Make no mistake — the true intent of this bill is to undercut and render ineffective the package of criminal justice reforms that were passed last year.” – Sarah Omojola, SPLC

It’s only been a couple of weeks since we turned out clocks forward, but one state lawmaker wants Louisiana to turn the clock back. No, this isn’t anything like the bill Florida’s legislature passed earlier this month – to stay on Daylight Savings Time permanently. Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Albany) wants to turn the clock back on a portion of the criminal justice reinvestment package passed last year.

“I don’t want to call it a ‘clean-up bill’, exactly, but the purpose of HB 195 is to make the criminal reforms we enacted last year better,” Mack explained to the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee he chairs.

Basically, the bill adds a “compliance hearing” to the probation process, and gives judges the discretion to increase probation from 3 years back to the 5 years that was the law before the changes were enacted.

Bob Morrisson with the Louisiana District Judges Association – a group that fought reducing probation times last year – said, “Because of the time it takes to go through the rehabilitation programs, three years probation ends up being – effectively – 18 months.”

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier also spoke in support, saying, “When we drop from five years down to three, then apply the ‘earned compliance credits’, probation time ends up being 18 months, rather than 36 months. That takes away the incentive to complete specialty treatment programs through the drug courts, alcohol courts and mental health courts we have established.

“Specialty courts make you do a lot. But now, if you’re a hardened criminal, all you have to do is lay low for 18 months and stay under the radar, get your compliance credits automatically, and you’re clear — rather than having to do what is required by the specialty courts.”

“Specialty courts and probation are alternatives to prison, right?” asked Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), who is a criminal defense attorney. “I don’t understand how you ‘fly under the radar’ on probation. You have to report to regularly to a probation officer.

“I have concerns for adding another hearing. An individual will have to take more time off from work – when the point of probation is often that they have a job and need to keep it. And on top of the probation fees that they’re already paying, they’ll have to hire a lawyer. This seems like a solution in search of a problem.”

“It’s an alternative to incarceration – you’re right,” Judge Morrisson responded. “But this is not necessarily adding another hearing at 18 months. It just gives the judges discretion to decide if the compliance credits actually are ‘earned’.”

Rep. Joe Marino (I-Gretna), who authored last year’s bill dealing with this part of the criminal code, objected to the entirety of Mack’s measure.

“This is not a clean up bill. One of the goals of criminal justice reform was to reduce probation time from five to three years, and let probation officers focus their attention on the time when an individual is most likely to fail. Most who are going to fail will do so within the first 12 months — that’s when most who are revoked get revoked.

“As for the concerns about this impacting the specialty courts – the reality is few jurisdictions actually have specialty courts. Statewide, only 1800 individuals are doing those programs, as compared to 70-thousand statewide who are on probation and parole.

“This is going backwards,” Marino insisted.

Sarah Omojola with the Southern Poverty Law Center agreed.

“Louisiana made the choice to enact the criminal justice reinvestment package last year – a package designed with input from victims, district attorneys, judges, sheriffs, and the Department of Corrections. This rolls back that progress. And make no mistake – the true intent of this bill is to undercut and render ineffective the package of criminal justice reforms that were passed last year.

“The legislation only took effect five months ago. We need to allow enough time for the law to fully take hold to be able to measure its success. If you do this, caseloads of already overburdened probation officers will spike, which contributes to high failure rates on community supervision, which in turn increases the prison population, and will increase costs.

“The savings Louisiana is counting on will disappear. We can’t afford this bill, “ she said.

Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley) jumped in, trying to counter some of the opposition to his chairman’s bill.

“This doesn’t change the earned compliance credits, does it? It simply gives judges the discretion to decide if it has been earned in a timely fashion, right?

“Right,” Mack responded.

But Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport) wasn’t about to let the SPLC representative’s argument about affordability be swept aside so quickly. She requested Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc to come to the witness table.

“Do you have any figures on savings since the Justice Reinvestment Act was implemented?” Norton asked.

“We’ve saved $16.3 million, as of the end of February,” LeBlanc stated. “That’s ten million dollars above what was projected – about two-and-a half times what was expected.”

Then Norton asked Mack, “Mr. Chairman, do you have numbers to show us it’s not working?”

“There are no numbers,” Mack said with a sigh. “This isn’t about money or savings. This is a bill to help people, keep them from going to jail and allowing them to do what was intended. It’s creating options.”

Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) voiced his support, saying, “This is about probation, not parole. It’s not about the essence of our reforms, since probation is ordered in lieu of going to prison. So I’d like to move the bill favorably.”

But Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) objected, which required a roll call vote. It narrowly passed, 8-7, along party lines.

Afterward Marcelle said, “Isn’t it interesting – everybody was at the table last year, and now some want to go back?”

And Rep. Mack has two more bills to “tweak” the criminal justice reforms – both to be heard in his committee Thursday morning.

Just remember what Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Baton Rouge) said on the House floor during the special session, when he revealed the GOP House leadership strategy: “We don’t want the Democratic governor re-elected, and we don’t want to give him any kind of win.”

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