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Higher or Lower? Legislature Unsure

“What type of message do you think this sends to the citizens, that we are going back on what we did — that we can’t make up our minds?” – Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport)

One thing Louisiana’s legislature can’t be accused of is consistency. Do we raise the age to purchase weapons, or lower the drinking age? Do we raise the age of criminal adulthood? Do we increase parole time back to what it was before we lowered it last year? All those questions and more were encapsulated in bills state lawmakers considered on Tuesday.

Sen. Eric LaFleur (D-Ville Platte) brought his bill to certify drinkers under the age of 21 to a Senate Committee. HB 429 would require 19 and 20 year-olds to take classes on alcohol consumption, which would be offered through the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, and upon completion, earn a certificate enabling them to purchase and consume alcohol.

Louisiana reluctantly raised its drinking age to 21 in 1986. Then in 1996, the state Supreme Court ruled that was unconstitutional age discrimination, since 18-year-olds are legal adults. Later that same year, the Court reversed that decision, due to federal notice the state would lose highway funding.

And upon testimony from DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson that passage of this new bill would cost the state at least $67-million in federal highway funds, LaFleur withdrew his measure from consideration.

Across the hall, another Senate committee discussed a bill to delay implementation of some juvenile justice reforms. The “Raise the Age Act”, passed in 2016, requires 17-year-old offenders in Louisiana – who have been treated as adults – to be shifted into the juvenile justice system, beginning July 1 of this year. Sen. Ronnie Johns’ (R-Sulphur) SB 248 would delay that implementation to 2020. He cited impending budget cuts to the state’s juvenile justice system as the main reason.

“We made this decision, and we need to stick by it,” argued Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria). “I oppose delaying the changes simply because we don’t have enough money. Every year we permit millions of dollars in tax breaks for corporations, even though we can’t afford that. Why should we treat 17-year-olds differently than those corporations?”

Ultimately, Sen. Johns chose to defer his bill for a week, and try to work out some changes urged by the administration.

Another Senate Committee grappled with SB 274, by Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans). That measure would prohibit the sale of assault-style weapons to any person under the age of 21.

“I fully support the Second Amendment,” Carter explained, “but federal law prohibits the sale of handguns to those under the age of 21 – and as we’ve seen, these weapons are far more deadly. And I support preserving lives.”

Carter enlisted the aid of New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison, who testified, “Never in the history of our city has an assault rifle been used for defending oneself or one’s home. In every instance, it’s used to attack other people. There’s no really good reason to purchase one at all, much less by those who are not fully mature.”

The NRA, not unexpectedly, opposed the bill. It’s representative, Erin Louper, said, “This deprives law-abiding young adults of their constitutional rights. It’s punishing law-abiding citizens for the acts of criminals.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Sen. Bodi White.

“With a .357, which I’ve carried for over 40 years, and a speed loader, I could take out a lot of people here in less than a minute,” he said.

Carter argued, “That speaks to the larger problem. This is a small step toward that. We give up a little bit to assure the greater good.”

“I know you believe that,” White replied, “but the vast majority of our citizenry are not criminals, and we’re tired of having to keep giving up our rights because of these bad actors, while everybody keeps citing ‘the greater good’.”

Yet it was the testimony of Mary Wanda, a teacher and the parent of a teenage son, that seemed to have the greatest impact on the committee.

“I am a lifelong Republican, but I’m here to say the time has come for you to step up,” the lady said, with her voice breaking repeatedly as she continued. “I’m tired of being afraid. I’m afraid to go to the mall, to the movies. I’m afraid for my son when he’s at school. I’m afraid for myself when I’m at work at school. If I wanted to live in a place where guns are everywhere, I could move to Afghanistan. But this isn’t a third world country. It’s Louisiana, and it’s my home. I say again, the time has come.”

“This is a basic measure that could save lives,” Sen. Carter said, in closing. “Protect the lives of those going to a movie, a concert, to school, to church. We know it won’t solve all the violence problems, but if it saves one, or two, or three lives, it’s worth it.”

The committee voted 4-3 to send the bill to the Senate floor for debate.

Yet the same committee voted unanimously to move another bill forward – one proposed by Sen. Bodi White, who had not so obliquely threatened to shoot up the entire room just minutes before.

SB 410 would require the state Department of Corrections to submit annual reports to the legislature, detailing who had been released early as part of the criminal justice reforms passed last year.

The reports have to include names, offenses, and, White says, “Most important to me is whether got a GED, literacy classes, or job skills training. There’s little chance not to recidivate if they don’t do that.”

But because the bill also asks for the details on juvenile offenders, Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) asked, “Do you think this could be a breach of confidentiality?”, while Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) wondered if the report would be published, as a public record.

And while they ultimately amended the bill to allow redaction of confidential details on juveniles, no one asked how this might backfire on last year’s law passed to “Ban the Box”. That bars colleges and universities from asking about criminal history on admission applications. It wouldn’t take much to cross-check names from the White bill’s required reports, and use that info to deny admission – despite the law.

Further, by demanding the detailed reports from the Department of Corrections – an agency under the executive branch, legislators are nibbling away at the separation of powers, even as they try to undermine the governor’s authority.

The full House also endorsed a bill with a similar purpose. HB 734 by Rep. Jack McFarland (R-Jonesboro) requires the state Department of Health to submit a quarterly data report on Medicaid to lawmakers, enumerating claims paid, denied, adjusted, adjudicated, rejected, pending – and the dollar amounts of each – from all of the managed care providers.

The vote was 97-0 to approve this micromanagement scheme.

The full House also considered Rep. Sherman Mack’s (R-Albany) HB 195 on Tuesday. The measure, opposed by the Louisiana Association of Probation and Parole Officers and by criminal justice reform advocates, raises the cap on parole time back to five years, after it had been lowered to three years under the Criminal Justice Reinvestment package passed last year.

“This will return discretion to the judges, after we tied their hands by limiting probation to three years,” Mack explained. “The judges want this, and the DAs Association wants this.”

Rep. Joe Marino (I-Gretna), who coordinated the reform bills passed in the House last year, cross-examined Mack at length about the bill.

“The changes we passed took effect in November. We don’t even have a year’s worth of results to evaluate how it’s working. How can we determine success of failure in just four months?” Marino asked.

“The judges and the DAs say it’s not working,” Mack replied.

“Do you have any numbers on that?” Marino pressed.

“No numbers,” Mack responded.

A motion was made to quell debate, by limiting the questions to five minutes. Requiring a 2/3 vote, it failed to achieve even a simple majority. And the debate continued.

Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) asked, “What is the cost attached to holding the hearings required by your bill, at 18 month, 2 years, 3 years, and 4 years?”

“There is no fiscal note,” Mack responded.

“I oppose your bill, did you know?” Marcelle informed him. “I want time, and I want numbers before agreeing to this rollback of what we’ve done.”

That’s when Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport) asked the question of the day.

“What type of message do you think this sends to the citizens, that we are going back on what we did — that we can’t make up our minds?”

Mack’s response? “I didn’t agree with it last year.”

And Marino, in his final plea to turn down this bill, exposed the previously unspoken motivation behind it.

“I am carrying the bills that make the needed changes to the criminal justice reforms. This is not one of them, and four months in is not the time to pull the plug.

“The old law is what they’re proposing we go back to – the old way, that wasn’t working: the way that gave us the highest incarceration rate in the world!. And we hope that it will work now?

“Why are people jumping ship?” he asked. “Re-election. But the reality is, you voted for something, and now you’re against it. And that gives your opponents more ammunition against your re-election.”

But with a vote of 62-38, the bill passed the House, and is now sent to the Senate.

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