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Group: Louisiana makes progress on criminal justice reform

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By William Patrick | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has concluded the last of 477 bill signings for the 2021 regular legislative session, and among hundreds of new laws are a slew of criminal justice measures a reform group calls “encouraging.”

“The 2021 legislative session saw the Pelican State continue to move in the right direction with common-sense, practical criminal justice reforms,” said Right on Crime, a nationally focused Texas-based nonprofit.

The group tracked more than 70 bills during Louisiana’s two-month legislative session and was appointed to the Survivor Informed Task Force, a victims’ rights initiative approved by the House and Senate, 97-0 and 37-0, respectively.

“Numerous bills were passed that will improve policies around victims’ rights, pre-trial reform, fees and fines, and strengthening reentry,” Right on Crime Louisiana State Director Scott Peyton wrote.

In an interview, Peyton cited various policy developments such as the Louisiana Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides tax breaks for employers hiring former prison inmates.

Louisiana is the highest incarceration state in the country, according to the advocacy group Sentencing Project. The leading predictor of recidivism, or returning to jail or prison, is unemployment.

Peyton suggested the most impactful legislative development was not a new law, but a bill that failed: House Bill 479, which he described as “all stick and no carrot.”

Sponsored by Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, the measure would have reduced parole eligibility and “good time” credits for inmates exhibiting good behavior and self-improvement activities. Inmates released from correctional facilities also would have received reduced support services.

Newly signed bills include House Bill 46 by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. It lowers the timeframe for prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges from 45 days to 30 days. The purpose is to limit jail time for those either waiting to be accused of a crime or released from custody.

House Bill 216 and House Bill 248 eliminated juvenile justice court costs and lowered probation and parole fees, which disproportionately affect low-income individuals.

The conservative Legislature also passed House Bill 652, a Democratic-sponsored bill eliminating incarceration for possession of fewer than 14 grams of marijuana.

Edwards referred to “advanced criminal justice reform” in his final bill signing statement last week and acknowledged the bipartisanship that made it possible.

“While much has been made of a handful of controversial bills, the reality is that this legislative session has produced many good laws that will improve the lives of Louisianans,” he said.

“We did this through bipartisan cooperation and compromise. As we have proven time and time again, the people of Louisiana are best served when all of us put aside our differences and focus on projects, programs and progress for all,” he said.

Edwards, a Democrat, worked with the Republican-dominated Legislature similarly to 2017, when a divided state government enacted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The initiative’s goal is to reduce prison admissions by 10% by 2027, saving nearly $300 million.

“Accountability is important to victims and taxpayers,” said Peyton, adding “you can be tough on crime and fair on crime.”

The reform group said it already is preparing for the 2022 legislative session and hopes to advance proposals relating to split-jury retroactivity – a nonunanimous jury conviction process banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 – and solitary confinement.

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