By: Juanice Gray, Editor
During the 2017 Legislative Session, a series of bills collectively called the “Justice Reinvestment Package” was debated and partially approved. The legislation was an Edwards administration initiative focused on finding ways to reduce the financial impact of incarcerating offenders while maintaining the rights of crime victims.
To find out what the impact of the 10-item justice package would have locally, the Natchitoches Times asked District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington to weigh in on the matter. Harrington responded to the Times questions with the following narrative.
“While the La. District Attorneys Association did not sponsor these bills, we communicated with the bill authors and our local legislators to express our position in representing crime victims and the citizens of Louisiana.
Legislation enacted was derived from Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force recommendations. This task force was comprised of stakeholders in criminal justice who represent sheriffs, district attorneys, the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, the secretary of the La. Department of Corrections, District judges, public defenders, and the Louisiana Sentencing Commission. The task force was created “to study the state’s criminal justice system and recommend strategic changes to get more public safety for each dollar spent. The inter-branch, bipartisan panel of experts found that, with the highest imprisonment rate in the United States, annual corrections spending at two-thirds of a billion dollars, and high recidivism rates, Louisiana’s taxpayers are not getting a good public safety return on investment.”
As district attorneys, our mission was to provide input to the task force and to ensure the rights of crime victims and the citizens we represent were not forgotten when discussing any changes to the criminal justice system. In that regard, the district attorneys were actively involved in this process.
The district attorneys opposed and successfully defeated, legislation that was not favorable to our concerns. Those bills would have abolished the death penalty; allowed a judge to modify sentences for juvenile murderers, rapists, and armed robbers; eroded our “stand your ground” law, and allowed the concealed carrying of a handgun without a permit. These proposed bills were met with opposition from the district attorneys and the sheriffs. Sheriff Victor Jones and I went to Baton Rouge this year on multiple occasions to testify in the House Committee on Criminal Justice to oppose legislation that would have weakened our criminal laws.
We did not oppose legislation that was intended to provide measurable results in reducing recidivism of offenders and reducing costs of incarcerating non-violent offenders. The legislation included allowing judges to suspend the sentence of some non-capital offenders to supervised probation for certain offenses.
In regards to your question how prosecutions may change as a result of the new legislation, the district attorney can recommend new sentencing options in certain cases. For example, SB 139 provides for the court, with the consent of the district attorney, to order a defendant to enter and complete a program provided by the drug division of the district court, an established driving while intoxicated court or sobriety court program or a mental health court program. This portion of the law directly addresses some of the systemic problems we see every day in our courts – crimes resulting from substance addiction or mental illness. As district attorney, I will now have more input on the direction of the appropriate sentence on these cases.
Other legislation was enacted as a result of a mandate from the United States Supreme Court. SB16 addressed the court mandate by prohibiting an automatic life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders. As a result of three Supreme Court decisions affirming this mandate, juvenile offenders may receive a life sentence without parole if the district attorney files notice with the court of his intent to seek the sentence and to show cause of the reasoning of the proposed sentence. This legislation gives the district attorney more discretion in determining the appropriate avenue of prosecution.
Additionally, for juvenile offenders who are currently serving life sentences, the district attorney may seek a hearing with the court to determine whether the offender’s original sentence should be imposed with or without parole eligibility. Currently, in Natchitoches Parish, there is a case that is applicable and our office has scheduled the hearing with the District Court.
There were bills enacted in the legislative session that focused on crime victims and citizens that we actively supported:
* HB116 addresses the notification process for crime victims. The legislation requires the development of a system that will provide electronic registration and notification for crime victims and also allows registered crime victims to submit re-entry statements to recommend certain parole conditions for their offenders.
* HB615 allows the parole board to extend the release date of an offender who has been granted parole if it determines that to ensure public safety, the offender completes a specific rehabilitative program prior to their release.
* HB509 increases penalties for violating protective orders and allows the court to impose no-contact orders on a defendant who is released on bail for certain domestic abuse-related offenses.
* HB 309 gives crime victims the right to have a sexual assault advocate and states that any communication with the advocate is confidential and privileged. The victim is also entitled to have the advocate prior to and while undergoing a forensic medical exam or being interviewed by law enforcement.
These new laws were specifically passed to further protect victims. We have a full-time victims’ coordinator in the District Attorney’s Office to address these needs.
The district attorneys also actively supported legislation that focused on the ongoing opioid epidemic we are facing in Louisiana. HB192 prohibits a medical practitioner from prescribing more than a seven-day supply when issuing a first-time opioid prescription for outpatient use. This important piece of legislation will immediately make an impact on the availability of opioids on the street. HB 490 establishes the Advisory Council on Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education. The legislation focuses on opioid overdoses and requires the coordination of parish-level data on opioid overdoses and usage of overdose-reversal medication. This coordination will give law enforcement, first responders, and the District Attorney’s Office more information to combat this epidemic.
Earlier this year, Sheriff Victor Jones and I jointly announced our continued efforts in combatting opioid addiction and discussed how our offices are responding to the crisis. We also alerted the parish of the harmful and potentially deadly effects of the misuse of opioids and fake street drugs.
In summary, the district attorneys in Louisiana will continue to prosecute criminals and be active advocates for crime victims and citizens of our districts. At the Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office, we review all facts in every case when determining the appropriate course of action for the best resolution. We continue to work with our law enforcement partners and the citizens of the parish to reduce, deter and dispose of criminal activity in Natchitoches Parish.