Bill would set minimum bail for “out of control” violent crime offenses

BATON ROUGE — As the 2023 Louisiana legislative session starts Monday, a number of bills are gaining traction with lawmakers at the capitol.

Among them are two pieces of legislation from State Representative John Stefanski (R-Crowley). He has filed one bill aimed at requiring mandatory minimum bail for those who commit violent offenses and another to enact severe penalties for fentanyl distribution.

“Violent crime is completely out of control”

Stefanski’s HB 498 would set the minimum bond amount for violent crime to be no less than $100,000 and no less than $500,000 for a violent crime where the person had a gun while committing the violent crime. Louisiana defines violent crime as everything from murder to carjacking.

“Violent crime is completely out of control and destroying communities across Louisiana,” Stefanski said. “Violent criminals have been acting as if there are no consequences.”

Right now, bond amounts are based on a number of factors. Offenses like first-degree murder can be set as high as $1 million, while bond for violent crimes like assault range from $25,000-$50,000.

Stefanski’s bill doesn’t apply to anyone charged with a violent crime that prohibits bail. It also specifies that a judge is required to detail in writing reasoning for a bond amount lower than the minimum thresholds.

“Until Louisiana gets real about prioritizing the safety of its citizens and our state, we will continue to lose,” Stefanski said. “That is why it’s time to take real action about the way we approach violent crime in this state.”

Bail amount hinges on several different factors

Former District Attorney Doug Moreau said the situation is dependent more on the judge setting the bail than the bail itself.

“It seems to me that there are some judges maybe not setting bail high enough in appropriate cases,” he said. “I have no doubt that there are people who do not deserve to be out of jail after they have committed certain crimes if the evidence is sufficient to believe that they have committed those crimes. That’s a difficult situation because there are people that think that the answer to all the questions is making the bail so high that nobody will ever make it. But if you make it so that nobody can ever make bail, it’s going to be ruled unconstitutional. There is a big problem with letting people out of jail, particularly juveniles when they commit very serious, violent crimes, and it’s happened in the last year and a half more than ever before.”

Moreau said there are currently limits to bail that are set statutorily. He said each case is a unique situation and the crime, the accused’s record and age are some of the factors that have to be considered every time.

“There are a variety of things that have to go in there,” he said. “There are some provisions in the law that require that a district attorney can go to court and have a hearing in which certain factors are put out on the record for the court to consider in deciding whether to allow bail and those factors came about as a result of the victims’ rights legislation, where victims were being seemingly punished because the law didn’t allow bail to be set high enough. The legislature responds and creates statutes. The statutes are not easy to impose in a particular case, but it’s a way that you go about trying to deal with a problem that does not really have a solution.”

Zero-tolerance fentanyl policy

Stefanski filed another piece of legislation that would toughen penalties for fentanyl distribution making it the strictest legislation in the United States.

The proposed HB 586 provides that if a person is convicted of possessing at least 28 grams of fentanyl, the offender could face between five years and 40 years in prison and may also be required to pay a fine less than $50,000. Stefanski’s bill proposes a life sentence without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of possessing more than 28 grams of fentanyl.

“With this legislation – we are sending a message loud and clear to drug traffickers that the state of Louisiana will have a zero-tolerance policy concerning fentanyl,” Stefanski said. “The penalty for possession or distribution of fentanyl 28 grams or more will now be equivalent to that of a violent crime like homicide: life in prison.”

Stefanski said his inspiration for the bill was when heroin started taking over the streets and killing people, the penalty was changed to life in prison for anyone in possession of heroin or having killed someone with heroin. He said drug dealers would prefer to play it safe and deal with drugs where they don’t end up in jail for the rest of their lives.

If his proposed bill changed the max from 40 years to life in prison for fentanyl, Stefanski says he hopes it will limit fentanyl on the streets and in turn, reduce the number of people dying from fentanyl overdoses.

Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45, with the number killed by the drug up 94 percent since 2019. Of the record 107,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2021, two-thirds involved fentanyl. Today, an average of one person in the U.S. now dies from a fentanyl overdose every seven minutes.

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