House committee approves bill limiting Louisiana’s sentencing law for repeat offenders

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Rep. Randal Gaines spoke on the Capitol steps Monday at a rally for his bill to limit the state’s repeat-offender sentencing law to violent crimes. (Christopher Drew/LSU Manship School News Service)

By James A. Smith and Hunter Lovell, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — A House committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would limit Louisiana’s sentencing law for repeat offenders only to violent crimes.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace, is part of an effort to expand the overhaul of Louisiana’s criminal justice system that began in 2017. It also would sharply reduce the number of people serving lengthy incarcerations.  

The bill passed without objection in the House Committee of Administration of Criminal Justice.

Louisiana still has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates even though Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican lawmakers agreed on a package of criminal justice reforms two years ago.

In June 2018, the state’s prison ratio was 712 per 100,000 residents, which was significantly higher than the national average of 415 per 100,000 residents in state and federal prisons, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts and U.S. Census Bureau.

Last November, voters eliminated Louisiana’s Jim Crow-era law that allowed people to be convicted of felonies even if only 10 of the 12 jurors voted to convict them. 

“Longer sentences are not a factor in deterring crime,” said Rep. Gaines. “Longer sentences overburden our prisons and budgets.”

Over two-thirds of non-violent offenders in Louisiana are serving lengthy sentences under the habitual offender law, according to Sarah O’Brien, an attorney at Orleans Public Defenders. 

Guilt and innocence become secondary, O’Brien contended, when prosecutors can use an individual’s record to sway a jury.

An habitual offender is a person who has been convicted of repeated crimes. 

Critics say Louisiana’s current habitual offender law, also known as the “multiple bill,” is often used as an easy route to put people back into prison.

Gaines’ bill adds “felony offense that is a crime of violence” to the language of the statute to specify that non-violent crimes will not be subject to the habitual offender law.

Continuously prosecuting non-violent crimes like drug offenses with longer sentences means that the state’s resources “end up being taken up by incarcerating non-violent offenders,” said former prosecutor Andrew Doss.

Orleans Parish has significantly scaled back its use of the habitual offender statute from 154 in 2015 to just 63 in 2018, according to data reported by TheLens in November.

Lawmakers heard emotional testimony from Dolfinette Martin, a non-violent repeat offender whose most recent prison sentence was for more than seven years for shoplifting.

“I came from a life of poverty, drug addiction and no access,” said Martin, who now serves as the operations manager at Operation Restoration, a nonprofit that helps women after they get out of prison. “I was never given the opportunity to do better than what I was doing.”

The committee also voted 7-6 to approve a bill that could grant parole eligibility for prisoners serving as mentors in the state’s inmate rehabilitation and workforce development program.

The bill would require the individual to be at least 40 years old, to have already served at least 20 years of a sentence and to have been a mentor for at least five years.

Troy Delone, a former mentor at the Angola prison, was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences within five years. He spoke in favor of the proposed bill.

Gov. Edwards commuted Delone in 2016 after he had served as one of the original mentors at Angola. Today he is a mentor at Total Community Action in New Orleans, where he helps young men re-integrate into society.

“I wanted to give back,” said Delone.

Timothy Hooper, warden of Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, said the mentors “are going back to their homes and influencing vulnerable youth to follow a better path than one they have known.” 

Currently, about 80 inmates are mentors at Angola.