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House lawmakers advance bills targeting early release from prison — and more

The Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge
Kezia Setyawan
The Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge on April 5, 2022.

A group of bills that target early release for prisoners by significantly cutting down parole and reduced sentences passed Louisiana’s House on Friday — the fifth day of Gov. Jeff Landry’s special session on crime. The bills head next to the Senate.

The proposals threaten to undo many of the bipartisan criminal justice reforms passed in 2017 under former Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. In some cases, the proposals could make Louisiana’s criminal justice system stricter than it was before reforms.

The bills include three introduced by Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner and chairwoman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, that would make it harder for people in prison to be released early.

Villio’s first proposal would get rid of parole for almost all offenders, with exceptions for juveniles who receive life sentences. And her second bill would require people in prison to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they can be released early for good behavior — an increase from the current 35% minimum.

Both bills would take effect on Aug. 1 and would mean that more offenders would serve their full sentences — or a greater portion of their sentences — which Villio says will create more certainty and slow the state’s “revolving door” of people who are released from prison but return after committing other crimes.

“Under our current system, a judge that wants an offender to serve two years has to impose an eight year sentence for some crimes,” she said in a House committee on Wednesday. “It is both the swiftness of punishment and the certainty of that punishment that is the most effective deterrent.”

But opponents argue the bills won’t prevent crime. And they say eliminating parole and cutting down on reduced sentences prisoners can earn for good behavior — what’s known as “good time” — will eliminate an incentive for people in prison to follow the rules and participate in rehabilitation programs.

“When you eliminate parole, you're taking hope from folks who have been incarcerated,” Rep. Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria, said on Friday. “If you take the hope of ever getting out, you're going to have more chaos in these prisons.”

House Bill 11, Villio’s third parole proposal, also passed the full House on Friday. It seeks to expand penalties for individuals who violate the terms of their parole.

House lawmakers advance other tough-on-crime bills

Another controversial proposal to pass the House this week would expand execution methods to include electrocution and nitrogen hypoxia. The death penalty is legal in Louisiana, but the state has not executed anyone since 2010, when Gerald Bordelon was voluntarily put to death for the murder of his stepdaughter.

Other bills to advance this week would make juvenile criminal records public if the person is accused of a violent crime and add the illegal use of weapons or “dangerous instrumentalities,” like guns, to the state’s list of violent crimes.

House lawmakers also approved a bill that would increase the penalty for carjacking from a minimum two-year sentence to five years. The bill, which was brought by Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Metairie, would also double the minimum sentence to 20 years if a carjacking results in an injury.

“These are violent and very traumatic crimes to victims,” Schlegel said in a House committee earlier this week.

Another of Schlegel’s bills to also pass the full House would set a minimum 25-year sentence without parole or probation for distributing fentanyl to minors where there is “reasonable appeal to a minor” based on the drug’s shape, color, taste or packaging.

Both of her bills, along with the others approved by House lawmakers, will go next to the Senate.

Criminal justice, concealed carry bills in the Senate

In the Senate, lawmakers passed a bill that would make 17-year-olds adults in the criminal justice system, reversing the Raise the Age Act signed in 2017 by Edwards.

The Senate also approved another bill that would allow anyone in Louisiana 18 years and older to carry a concealed gun without a permit. The New Orleans Police Department opposes the proposal, which does not require training for members of the public to conceal carry.

“Permits ensure that certain core public safety standards are maintained,” said Lawrence Dupree, chief deputy of the NOPD.

Landry, who had a contentious relationship with New Orleans as attorney general, has singled out crime in the city as one of his top issues to address. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, however, said in a statement that New Orleans has been “trending in the right direction." She also expressed concern that the bills in this session will not address the root issues of crime, like education and mental health.

Other concealed carry bills have come up in the Legislature frequently in recent years but either were vetoed by Edwards or rejected in legislative committees.

On Monday, Landry gave a resounding endorsement of the bill, telling lawmakers that they now have a governor who will sign permitless concealed carry into law.

All of those bills head next to the House. The special session must end by March 6, but could wrap sooner.

Molly Ryan is a political reporter and covers state politics from the Louisiana Capitol.