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Louisiana Passed Justice Reforms in 2017, But How Much Is Being Utilized?

This year we saw the LSU Tigers take home a National Championship. For the first time in many years, maybe decades, the Tigers had an unbelievable defense, offense and special teams. From Coach “O” on down it was a team effort. We would not have won the National Championship this year without every part of the program working together as intended.

Just like the LSU Tigers, the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) reforms, a package of 10 bills enacted to address the issues identified by the Louisiana Justice Re-Investment Task Force to improve public safety and responsibly decrease the state’s prison population, were designed to work together in order to safely achieve this end.

Some critics claimed the reforms were aimed at letting violent offenders out of prison in order to strip Louisiana of its rank as world’s number one incarcerator. Others said the reforms were necessary, but the implementation of the reforms was inadequate. However, none of these critics proposed any alternative plans for reforming the criminal justice system. The JRI reforms were evidence-based and modeled after conservative states like Texas, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Interestingly, the State of Texas announced recently that they were closing an additional two prisons, proving that conservative states continue to lead with pro-public safety reforms, while saving millions—if not billions—in tax dollars.

Almost two and half years later, some of the JRI reforms are yet to be implemented, while others are being ignored. For example, the legislature enacted Act 260—meant to “ensure criminal justice fines and fees do not become a barrier to successful reentry by determining a person’s ability to pay, creating a payment plan that people can comply with, creating incentives for consistent payments, and differentiating inability to pay vs. a choice not to pay.” However, this act of the legislature has yet to be implemented due to the complexity of the way our courts assess and collect fines and fees.

Via HCR 87, the legislature created the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding to seek alternative funding sources for our courts. A year later, we are no closer to understanding what happens to fines and fees after they are collected.

HCR 2 was introduced this session to provide temporary relief to those persons strapped by fines and fees by suspending financial obligations of criminal offenders until August 2021. Louisiana has the opportunity to take the lead in this area of criminal justice reform.

In 2017, the legislature enacted Act 262 to “streamline the process for people with criminal convictions to apply for and receive occupational licenses.” Over 24 occupational licensing boards scrambled to be excluded from this legislation. The law required these boards to submit annual reports to the House Committee on Commerce each year, including documentation of the “number of licenses issued and denied by the entity, including all reasons for any such issuance or denial.” A public records request showed that only two boards submitted reports for a total of 3 reports in 2 years. Ironically, a board that does not follow the law can, in turn, deny a license to applicants for their past law-breaking activities. Occupational licensure presents a barrier not only for the formerly incarcerated but for all citizens who want to earn a living.

Finally, in 2017, Act 264 was enacted to “suspend child support payments for people who have been incarcerated for more than six months unless the person has the means to pay or is imprisoned for specific offenses and allows courts to extend child support payments beyond the termination date for the period of time in which payments were suspended.” Again, another part of the JRI reforms that has yet to be implemented. Legislation will be introduced this session to ensure this portion of the reforms are no longer ignored.

Like the LSU Tigers, we cannot expect the 2017 reforms to be successful if a significant percentage of the legislation is not being utilized. We have an opportunity to fix this in the 2020 session, with new legislators joining in support of the criminal justice champions already serving. Now is the time to pass meaningful reforms that will reduce barriers for those released from prison, and in-turn create a “Re-Entry Ready” Louisiana that aims to keep our communities safe, restores victims, reforms offenders, and ultimately saves tax payer dollars.  This is a win-win scenario for all Louisianans.

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