Covering Louisiana

Jun 15, 2011 9:03 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP

Committee approves a series of sentencing changes

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A Senate committee has approved three House-backed bills to release low-risk offenders from prison early, moving them near final passage.
Two of the bills are part of a legislative package by a bipartisan sentencing commission that seeks to lower the cost of state corrections without increasing risk to the public.
The Judiciary B Committee on Tuesday approved a Baton Rouge lawmaker's bill to allow certain inmates above age 60 to be considered for parole. The bill, by Democrat Pat Smith, would require inmates to get a GED and go a year with no disciplinary violations to be eligible, among other criteria.
"We have the highest incarceration rate in the world," said Smith. "And this is a common sense approach to looking at how we can release individuals back into society."
The bill is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"This bill is truly a win for everybody," said Marjorie Esman, the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
Burl Cain, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, said the bill would not allow offenders to be released against the wishes of victims.
"Victims trump," Cain said. "We don't want anybody to get out of prison that people are afraid of."
After approving Smith's bill without objection, the committee approved two bills by a Metairie lawmaker to reduce the mandatory sentence of certain inmates. Republican Joe Lopinto says his bills would let prisons focus on high-risk offenders.
Currently, state prisoners can earn "good time" credit by complying with rules and joining programs to reduce the likelihood they'll return to prison. Credits allow the offenders to serve the time they earn under parole supervision, rather than in prison. But there are multiple state provisions on "good time," making it difficult for victims and defendants alike to determine what percentage of a sentence must be served.
Lopinto's first bill would consolidate and simplify the law on earned credits. The Louisiana Sentencing Commission estimates the bill would cut more than $4 million in the first year of implementation and more than $253 million over 10 years.
His second bill approved by the committee would make certain low-risk offenders eligible for parole after serving fewer years of their sentences.
The original bill would have reduced the mandatory sentence for a first felony from 33.3 percent to 25 percent; for a second felony from 50 percent to 25; and for a third felony from 100 percent to 50.
But the House criminal justice committee amended the bill to prohibit anyone convicted of a third or subsequent felony offense from being eligible for parole. And the Senate committee on Tuesday removed the provision that affects second-time felons, leading the Louisiana District Attorney Association to lend their support for the bill.
Lopinto's bills are both part of a broader package of legislation developed by the Louisiana Sentencing Commission. Smith's bill was not part of the package.
All three bills exclude violent and sex offenders from early parole. All were reported favorably without objection out of the committee.


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