Inside Report: Committee advances bills to ease parole path

The huge television monitors in the Louisiana House cafeteria were tuned to the Common Core debate Wednesday. Lobbyists unable to snag a seat in the committee room grabbed a cup of coffee and huddled around the screens, watching hours of back-and-forth on the controversial academic goals.

Common Core was the theme of the day with the audience spilling into overflow rooms after state fire marshals locked the doors to the committee room in which the debate actually unfolded. However, other work was underway elsewhere at the State Capitol.

Away from the Common Core buzz, the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice quietly advanced a sweeping measure that could result in offenders spending less time behind bars. A cut in jail time would be just one of House Bill 682’s three big changes to state law.

Now on its way to the full House for debate:

  • The bill would require violent offenders to serve only 75 percent — rather than 85 percent — of their jail sentences before becoming eligible for parole. The change would apply to future offenders, not those now in prison.
  • The bill would allow the state parole board to grant parole recommendations on a majority, rather than unanimous, vote.
  • The bill would create grants for sheriffs to provide resources in employment, life skills training and job placement to state inmates housed in parish prisons.

The proposal’s sponsor, state Rep. Katrina Jackson, said plenty of safeguards still would be in place.

“The Parole Board’s still the gatekeeper on whether they’ve been properly rehabilitated,” said Jackson, D-Monroe.

Jackson kicked off her bill presentation before the criminal justice committee with a proposal involving the Louisiana Sentencing Commission. House Bill 679 would require the commission to gather data on criminal statutes’ impact.

“It’s interesting in principle. It’s very enticing in principle,” offered Judge Fredericka Wicker, a member of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission. Wicker is a judge on the Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in Gretna.

Jackson quickly agreed to stall the bill on the floor if she can’t find a funding source for the data collection. The committee advanced HB679, then turned to HB682.

Without objection, committee members swiftly advanced the legislation after the bill picked up some influential supporters.

Louisiana Sheriffs Association Executive Director Michael Renatza said his membership agreed to the proposal.

“We think that this is fair. We think that the safeguards are in place for public safety to still be accomplished, and we like the fact that the savings prospectively would be used for very positive purposes,” Renatza said.

Jackson said the creation of the Programs to Reduce Recidivism Fund is important because of the number of state inmates housed in parish prisons. She said they often do not receive the same rehabilitation programs — called re-entry — offered in state prisons.

Chiming in, Renatza said re-entry is a proven product that reduces the number of offenders who return to prison after their release.

The legislation calls for sheriffs to receive grants from money appropriated, donated or otherwise made available.

It also would sweep in the savings from reducing the amount of time a person is required to serve before being eligible for parole consideration.

State Rep. Steven E. Pylant — a former Franklin Parish sheriff — said the grants are sorely needed. “My department did it without any funds so I think it’s something that’s long overdue,” he said.

Louisiana District Attorneys Association Executive Director Pete Adams said he is fine with the parole eligibility change because it would not apply to offenders already sentenced for their crimes.

“Everyone’s going to know the terms. Everyone’s going to know the first eligibility for parole is not at 85 percent but at 75 percent. So it’s fair,” Adams said.

Michelle Millhollon covers the Governor’s Office for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Her email address is mmillhollon@theadvocate.com.