In parts one and two, we heard from those who are directly impacted by life sentencing and who can control the process, but what’s being done to modify it?
In part three of our investigation, we get a more in-depth look at how incarceration is affecting the state and look ahead to legislation that could help decrease the prison population.
The law strengthened the existing multiple offender law into what some called the “Three Strikes Law." If someone got a third felony, they would be sentenced to life without parole.
This included all crimes of violence, but also some non-violent crimes like certain drug convictions, theft, or fraud cases.
KATC spoke with one of the original authors of the bill, who says after 26 years, he still stands by his decision of drafting the bill which would later be passed into law.
“I don’t regret anything. All people who commit felonies should be serving life," said Former Dist. 94 Representative Peppi Bruneau.
”It is a relic of the past and it definitely needs to be addressed and to be changed," stated Right On Crime State Director Scott Peyton.
Peyton said that because the law includes nonviolent offenses, more courts use this as a legal hook to mandate life sentencing.
"What has happened in our criminal justice system is this tough on crime mentality. It has led to serving longer prison sentences and the crimes are not proportionate or the sentences are not proportionate with the crime," Peyton added.
Right now almost 4,000 people are serving time under the habitual offender statute.
About half of those are serving more than 20 years (virtual life sentences), with 519 of those serving life in prison.
1,900 are serving for nonviolent crimes, with each inmate costing taxpayers roughly $24,000 a year.
"It’s ultimately costing taxpayer dollars," said VOTE Policy Coordinator Kelly Garrett.
VOTE Policy coordinator Kelly Garrett works with families throughout the state to help inmates be exonerated or released from what she calls harsh sentencing. She says the scales of justice are imbalanced.
“We have about 4,600 individuals who are doing life sentences here in the state of Louisiana. 74 percent of that are people of color. People of color make up about 30 percent of the population," Garrett explained. "Why is that happening? It’s not that people of color are more violent, but when you look at just the numbers itself, numbers don’t lie."
Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Washington parishes accounted for a combined 25 percent of all newly sentenced Louisiana prisoners in 2020. 92 percent of the 365 new inmates were sentenced under the repeat offender law.
Under the law, after a conviction of a repeat offender, a district attorney can file to have the convict's punishment increased on account of his criminal history.
Prosecutors need only prove that the details of that history are accurate and judges have little choice but to lengthen the convict's sentence, sometimes exponentially. Some plea deals also incorporate habitual offender sentences.
“If you’re looking at a life sentence versus 25 years, you’re going to take a plea. You are going to take a plea nine times out of ten," added Garrett.
In 2017, the law was amended, lifting the life in prison sentence for those convicted on non-violent crimes for their second and third offense. Since then the number of people in prison has dropped by 30 percent.
In 2019, Governor John Bel Edwards signed legislation that would allow someone who has completed a nonviolent or nonsex conviction not to face enhancement of a sentence to a second nonviolent or non-sex offense. Unless the criminal activity continues, prosecutors can bring back that first offense in their calculation of habitual offender status.
“That is a positive, but the problem still remains that our prosecutors wield a great deal of power in applying this statute. Hopefully, we will see a change and use different programs instead of locking people up indefinitely," Peyton added.
Three proposals to modify the habitual offender law will be presented in the upcoming legislative session. That session begins on April 12th.
Several bills addressing this law have been pre-filed for consideration during the regular legislative session that begins on Monday.
HB 402 would give the judge in a case the authority to decide if someone should be sentenced to life after their third conviction. It would also allow people convicted of a felony to serve in public office, whether elected or not.
HB 254 would allow anyone who was younger than 18 when convicted of a non-homicide offense to apply for parole consideration after serving 25 years of their original sentence, as long as certain conditions are met.
HB 145 makes adjustments to present law to increase the possibility of parole for older prisoners who have served a certain number of years or a certain percentage of their sentence, depending on their original conviction.
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