Thursday, July 18, 2024

With GOP in charge, Louisiana House moves to almost eliminate parole

by BIZ Magazine

By Claire Sullivan | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—Louisiana, which tops lists for both incarceration and crime, moved Friday toward almost entirely eliminating parole and dramatically shrinking good-behavior sentence reductions.

The House passed a slew of bills by Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, the new chair of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, who has seized the opportunity provided by a unified, GOP-controlled Legislature that had been tempered for eight years by former Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“For those of you who believe parole should be considered for a person 18 years or older who commits a heinous crime for which the sentence of life is imposed,” Villio said at one hearing, “there’s likely very little I can say to you to make a difference. We simply disagree — philosophically.”

Newly elected Republican Gov. Jeff Landry opened the special crime session Monday with a fiery speech lambasting what he called “radical activists hard at work to empty our prisons” and a criminal justice system that has forgotten victims. Since then, lawmakers have raced to undo changes in the criminal justice made on a bipartisan basis in 2017 to incarcerate fewer people convicted of nonviolent crimes and reduce state spending on incarceration. 

The House approved the changes sought by Landry despite droves of opponents who have voiced concerns that the bills would be costly and fail to deter crime. The 2017 reforms saved the state an estimated $152.7 million from that October to June 2022, according to a review by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. 

One Republican who took center stage Friday was Villio, who has focused on crime since she arrived at the Capitol in 2020. She passed a measure in 2022 that would have limited parole opportunities for some felons, but it was vetoed by Edwards, who called it a rollback of the 2017 reforms. 

Villio has sponsored bills this session that would eliminate parole, with narrow exceptions such as juvenile lifers, and slash good-behavior sentence reductions to 15% from 65%. Another bill would require monitoring people who do get probation for longer periods and make it easier for judges to sanction people for probation violations.

Her proposals, House Bills 9 and 10, advanced 71-33 and 71-32, respectively, through the House along party lines, with Rep. Barbara Reich Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, voting with Democrats. Freiberg rejoined the Republicans on House Bill 11, which deals with probation. 

Villio said her measures would bring “truth in sentencing,” meaning the time someone is sentenced to would be the time they serve. If passed by the Senate and signed by Landry, which is likely, the bills would only affect those who commit offenses on or after Aug. 1. 

But opponents are concerned the public has not had enough time to vet the bills that will significantly reshape the criminal justice system. A group of activists filed a restraining order to slow the lightning-speed lawmaking, encouraging people to pack the 19th Judicial District Courthouse Friday morning in support. 

Other criticisms originate from concerns that the bills do not address the root causes of crime. New Orleans Rep. Matthew Willard and other Democrats pointed out that Louisiana simultaneously tops lists for incarceration rates and crime, suggesting a tougher approach will not fix the issue.

“It seems the heart of this is a lot of disagreement on what numbers show, and that is very unfortunate,” said Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans. “I think all of us agree that data is how we need to make decisions and not feelings.”

Critics have noted that those who are released on parole have lower recidivism rates than those who serve until the end of their sentences, about 5.2% compared to 13.8% in 2021, according to the most recent data available in the 2023 annual report from the state Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole.

Additionally, critics of Villio’s bills noted that it is difficult to earn parole. Out of 790 people who had parole hearings in 2023, 387 — slightly less than half — were approved, according to the board data.

Gov. Landry said incarcerated people getting reduced sentences for good behavior was like a “participation trophy for jail.” He said bills like Villio’s will incentivize inmates to complete re-entry programs and gain skills, while “preparing them to re-join society in a productive, safe, and responsible manner.”

Others worried the elimination of parole would reduce defendants’ willingness to make plea deals, burdening the courts with more trials. It also would add to corrections costs and make prisons more dangerous as incarcerated people lose hope of release.

“If you remove that hope, you’re going to have more bloodshed in these prisons,” said Rep. Ed Larvadain III, D-Alexandria, “and you’re not going to have anybody who wants to work in them.”

Beatrice Taylor knows that hope personally. She served 23 years in prison for killing a man who abused her and was released on probation in her 70s, she testified in a committee hearing Wednesday.

“Please don’t sever the only line of hope. Offenders can be educated now,” Taylor said. “Please don’t take away the hope of hardworking women and men.”

Madison Maronge and Piper Naudin contributed to this report.

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