The Louisiana 2020 Legislative session certainly was memorable. It began with my first grandchild, Lucy Louise Peyton, who was born on March 9, 2020, the first day of the 2020 Session! What an awesome start for the session because everyone loves grandfathers! A week earlier, Kelley Paul and Alice Marie Johnson visited Baton Rouge to participate in a Right on Crime event around making Louisiana reentry ready. It was shaping up to be a great session for criminal justice reform, but it was cut short.
In just the first week of session, COVID-19 struck, session was suspended, and we all sheltered in place for months. Sadly, Representative Reggie Bagala, a freshman representative, passed away due to COVID-19. Uncertainty and confusion followed for several weeks in Louisiana and across the nation.
The session resumed in May with restrictions in place. While the legislature determined to proceed with an abbreviated agenda, it took up a number of criminal justice issues important to Louisiana prior to COVID-19, and particularly important in response thereto.
There was overwhelming legislative support for reentry reforms that will improve the likelihood that individuals who are released from prison do not return. First, HB 77, sponsored by small business owner, Representative Phillip DeVillier, will allow the use of video technology for probationers and parolees as an alternative to require their taking time off work to accommodate an in-person meeting.
Additional reforms aimed at ensuring Louisiana’s reentry readiness include SB 354, sponsored by Senator Patrick McMath, that will require the Department of Corrections to provide an identification card to each individual upon their release that includes a list of vocational accomplishments to function as a pocket sized, laminated resume. Moreover, Representative Royce Duplessis sponsored a reentry bill, HB 529, that requires probation and parole to issue a letter of incarceration upon request that provides an accounting of a person’s time spent in DOC custody. As a former probation and parole officer, I see the value of this practical bill in assisting persons obtaining a TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) card, proving incarceration times to clear old traffic warrants, determining eligibility for reentry programs, and even in cases of identity theft.
Additional reforms include HB 643, sponsored by Representative Frederick Jones, that will allow the reevaluation of supervision requirements for those on parole after they have served 5 years for non-violent offenses, and 7 years for violent offenses. HB 344, sponsored by Representative Mandie Landry, will prohibit the use of solitary confinement for women who are pregnant with provided exceptions for exigent circumstances. This bill helps protect the health of both the baby and the mother. Since the 1800’s, Louisiana law banned solitary confinement with the exceptions of enforcing the “police regulations of the penitentiary.” HB 344 is the first change to the existing solitary confinement law in over 200 years! Finally, HB 417 by Representatives Edward Ted James and John Stefanski will allow judges to waive costs and fees in juvenile cases for any reasons, removing financial burdens on families.
Louisiana laid the groundwork for future reforms. In addition to several expungement bills by Representative Joseph Marino that will pave the way for implementation of Clean Slate legislation, HR 67, sponsored by Representative Edward Ted James, recreates the Clean Slate Task Force. This task force is tasked with developing recommendations to help those with criminal histories navigate Louisiana’s complex expungement process and clear barriers to employment and housing. Right on Crime was officially added to the Clean Slate Task Force. The Legislature also passed a resolution sponsored by Representative Tanner Magee to recreate the Commission on Justice System Funding which has been working for the past year to bring accountability and transparency to how Louisiana courts are funded. The commission will be able to continue its work in determining how to effectively fund the courts without placing this burden entirely on the backs of the defendants.
These reforms reinforce the reforms enacted in 2017 by ensuring Louisiana is re-entry ready. It is time for every stakeholder in the criminal justice system—law enforcement, district attorneys, public defenders, victims, judges, formerly incarcerated and criminal justice advocates —to come together and fix criminal justice issues and make our communities safer. This session proved that together, we can create policies that are evidence-based, proven to protect the public, restore victims, reform offenders, and save tax payer dollars should be the number one priority.
Let’s roll-up our sleeves and continue to address these important issues!