Conservative think tanks: Louisiana legislators should rewrite sentencing laws

A coalition of conservative think tanks recommended Tuesday that Louisiana address its nation-leading incarceration rate by repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses and rolling back habitual offender laws.

Lessening Louisiana’s harsh punishments would allow the state to better focus on ensuring violent criminals are kept behind bars, report concluded.

And having that message delivered by conservative groups will help push the Louisiana Legislature into making those reforms, lawmakers and lobbyists say.

“It’s good to see conservative and liberal and in between groups all agreeing that what we have been doing doesn’t seem to be working,” said Jim Harris, a spokesman for Blueprint Louisiana, a group of businessmen and professionals that lobbies for changes in state government policies, including revamping the state’s sentencing laws.

Laws enacted by the state during the past couple decades led to a doubling of the state’s prison population from 21,007 in 1992 to 39,709 in 2011.

Over the same time period, expenditures for corrections have increased by $315 million in comparable dollars to $757.4 million in 2011, according to a report produced by the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles research group that says it promotes libertarian principles, in conjunction with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a self-described New Orleans study group that promotes free markets and limited government.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime, both Austin organizations that described themselves as conservative, also helped with the report.

Pelican Institute President Kevin Kane said having conservative organizations preparing an analysis and supporting revamps of sentencing, gives conservative lawmakers political coverage.

“Republican governors have more leeway on this issue than they have had in the past,” Kane said.

“This paper is not like a list of specific bills we expect to see filed in the next session but it is consistent with direction I think we ought to going.”

The report is called “Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: An Argument for Reforming Louisiana’s Determinate Sentencing Laws.”

The analysis looked at the results of university and government studies, as wells as data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies.

Among the suggestions forwarded by the groups include enacting legislation that would repeal “draconian mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.”

Judges should allowed to use “case-specific factors related to the crime” when determining the punishment.

The groups also recommend rewriting the state’s habitual offender law that requires third-time offenders to go to prison for life, in most cases.

Legislation should rewrite the statute to apply to those convicted of violent crimes.

Fredericka Wicker, a member of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, called the report well researched and supportive of the work the government board has done.

The commission recommends changes to the Legislature on the adjudication of criminal laws.

“Our work is far more incremental than what the Pelican Institute is proposing,” said Wicker, who is a judge on the Louisiana 5th Circuit of Appeal in Gretna.

But the data supports the changes recommended, she said.

State Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, who as chairman of the House Administration of Criminal Justice would schedule any bills aimed at changing the way Louisiana punishes convicted criminals, pointed out the Legislature already has made changes to Louisiana’s sentencing laws, and has done so with the support of district attorneys and sheriffs, who generally oppose such changes.

Prosecutors are not necessarily opposed to changing the laws, but they want to see exactly what is being proposed, said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney Association, the prosecutors’ professional organization.

He said often proponents of change use nonsensical anecdotes to support their claims.

“If any change is based in reality and not based in overbroad characterizations, then we can talk. But so many of these things come out of fallacies, like the prison cells are populated by nonviolent people who are not dangerous to the community.

“That’s just not true. You have to work harder to get into Angola than you do to get out of college,” Adams said.

Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate with 868 of every 100,000 residents in prison.

“As things stand, nonviolent offenders who pose little or no threat to society are routinely sentenced to long terms in prison with no opportunity for parole, probation or suspension of sentence. In most cases, this is a direct result of the state’s determinate sentencing laws,” the report stated.