Panel moves pardon requests bill

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- State Representative Dalton Honore is shown in this February 2014 Advocate file photo. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- State Representative Dalton Honore is shown in this February 2014 Advocate file photo.

A bill that would reduce the window of time between pardon applications underwent a dramatic makeover Wednesday at a House committee meeting.

Then — much like the taste of New Coke — legislators decided they liked the original version better.

State Rep. Dalton Honoré , D-Baton Rouge, told the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice that his goal with House Bill 8 is to take the first step toward prison reform in Louisiana.

“I spent a lot of hours considering a lot of things,” Honoré said.

Offenders sentenced to life in prison must wait seven years to file a pardon application after their initial request is denied.

HB8 would reduce the waiting time for subsequent applications to five years.

Minutes into his presentation of HB8, Honoré offered an amendment to change the wait to four years for second applications, three years for third applications and two years for fourth and subsequent applications.

After the committee swiftly adopted the amendment without objection, Louisiana District Attorneys Association Executive Director Pete Adams rose from his seat in the audience and grabbed a witness card.

Adams told the committee his organization planned not to take a position on the bill. With the change, he said, the stance might need to be rethought given the toll on victims who often testify at pardon hearings.

“We’re concerned about cases in which we have to go and object. … If you start shortening that period of time, when you’re not giving out pardons anyway, all you’re doing is bringing victims back again and again,” Adams said.

Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, said the victims need to be considered since they are the ones who will be reliving the crime every four years or less versus every seven years.

He said the legislation affects convicted murderers and other violent offenders with life sentences.

“Every crime has a victim, especially a violent crime,” Landry said. “I’m for prison reform, and I’m for reducing this mass incarceration, but I’m also sensitive to people who have to relive, sometimes, a violent crime.”

Landry then asked Honoré how many people have been pardoned in the past few years, referring to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reluctance to act on pardon and probation applications. Honoré said he has no control over the governor but wants to take the first step toward addressing the state’s prison system.

“This might be a step, but it’s not the first step,” Landry interjected.

Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, asked what the logic is behind the current seven-year lapse between pardon applications. “Is that a magic number?” he asked.

Adams said there is no magic to that number, which is why the district attorneys’ group decided against opposing whittling it down to five years.

He said the pardon process generally is reserved for life sentences and serious crimes, including murder, rape and robbery. He said other offenders go the parole route.

“I would be a little concerned about the fact that they’ve murdered someone or they’ve raped someone,” Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, said after hearing Adams’ description of pardon applicants.

Called to the table to talk about the bill, Thomas Bickham, undersecretary of the state Department of Corrections, admitted he was coming into the discussion a little cold.

Bickham said he didn’t know about the amendment ahead of time.

“There are a lot of programs in place, a lot more programs now than there were years ago, for people to improve themselves and change themselves, and I think that’s part of the rationale,” Bickham said.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, proposed stripping the amendment from the bill and returning it to the original version. Without objection, the committee agreed with his suggestion, then advanced the legislation to the full House.