BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) - A House committee voted down a bill Tuesday that would remove non-violent and non-sex offenses from habitual offender law that currently limits judicial discretion and gives prosecutors the upper hand in plea negotiations.
The bill, sponsored by Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, failed on a 9-7 vote divided on party lines, with Rep. Joseph Marino, the committee’s lone Independent, voting no with the Republican majority. Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, and Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, were absent.
It faced opposition from the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and Brown’s local district attorney, Ricky Babin, whose district includes Assumption Parish.
Marino said he supported the legislation in principle, but would not vote for it because it would alter the compromises made during a major push by the Legislature last summer to improve the criminal justice system and reduce the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate.
Back then, Marino said, “We did make an agreement on this issue that is a compromise that we are going to change the habitual offender law, and I am not going back on our agreement.”
“But we are going back on agreements in other areas,” he added, referring to another vote by the committee on Tuesday to advance legislation to stiffen penalties for non-violent offenses involving heroin.
The failure of the habitual offender bill fits into a common narrative for this session’s criminal justice legislation.
Critics say that rollbacks in the letter and spirit of the reform package, often presented as “tweaks” or “clarifications,” have passed through the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice with the support of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, while proposed expansions of last year’s changes have been uniformly met with opposition.
One bill would extend the maximum length of probation to five years, a two-year increase to the limit set last year. Another would delay the start date of a provision that would ease the financial strains imposed with convictions related to an offender’s conviction scheduled to take effect in August.
Both bills have passed the House and are awaiting committee hearings in the Senate.
Legislators and community leaders are working with the governor’s office to try to group all the changes and find consensus on what parts of last year’s criminal justice package should be adjusted.
James Dixon, the State Public Defender, said that under habitual offender law, a defendant’s prior convictions shift the “entire outlook of the defense” toward making a plea deal to limit exposure to the long sentences.
“Innocence and guilt should be paramount, but I’m telling you with the multiple bills and the leverage it provides, guilt and innocence become secondary,” Dixon said.
Sarah Omojola, a policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the bill’s failure was yet another setback for advocates who started the session with high hopes of building on last year’s changes.
“Just the threat of these serious penalties for low-level offenses creates an imbalance in our criminal justice system and pushes people to agree to disproportionate prison sentences and plead guilty to crimes they didn’t actually commit,” Omojola said.
Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the existing law gives district attorneys the tools they need to keep their communities safe from “career offenders.”