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Gov. Landry sets wide agenda for special legislative session on crime

BATON ROUGE — Gov. Jeff Landry has issued a call for a 16-day special session of the Louisiana Legislature on crime and public safety that includes some two dozen topics for state lawmakers to consider. Much of the agenda is devoted to undoing many of the policies his predecessor put in place to shrink overcrowded prison populations and support alternatives to incarceration.

The items include expanding methods for administering the death penalty and harsher penalties for carjacking. The governor is also seeking stricter treatment of juvenile offenders and tighter provisions for granting parole. He is also proposing placement of the state’s indigent defender system under the governor’s office.

Lawmakers will start the special session at 1 p.m. Feb. 19 and must wrap up before 6 p.m. March 6 – less than a week before the regular session begins on March 11.

The governor’s special session consists 24 items (read below) the Legislature can consider, with actual proposals to come from lawmakers themselves. 

Death penalty methods

As expected, Landry wants lawmakers to expand the ways Louisiana puts condemned people to death. The state has relied solely on lethal injection since 1991 but hasn’t used the method since 2010 because of a shortage of drugs used for the process. The electric chair had been used previously, and hanging was still a legal form of execution in Louisiana into the 1990s.

Alabama used nitrogen gas last month to put a convicted murderer to death, despite critics’ concerns the method wasn’t proven or humane.

Landry has described death sentences as contracts with victims’ families that the state is currently failing to uphold.

“When we fail to abide by our promises and our contractual obligations to victims out there,  how can we go around and say that we have any credibility on anything else that we do?” Landry said at a news conference a week ago.

The governor’s call also specifies that state lawmakers should address criminal and civil liability and confidentiality of records related to administering the death penalty. This would appear to give legal cover to the state should alternative forms of execution be botched as well as shield anyone who provides the state what’s needed to carry out the death penalty.

States that have pushed to resume or expedite executions have said pharmaceutical companies that provide drugs for lethal injections have sought confidentiality.

Criminal justice changes

Landry has also directed legislators to follow through on his promise to unravel former Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a host of changes made to state law in 2017 that centered on reducing the state’s nation-leading prison population.

The package directed money saved from placing fewer people behind bars to reentry programs, victims services and programs within the juvenile justice system.

Another Edwards initiatives targeted in Landry’s agenda directs lawmakers “to lower the age of a … child” for criminal trials and punishment, which would reverse “Raise the Age” policy the previous governor approved in 2016.

It led to more 17-year-old offenders being treated as juveniles in the court system. In turn, the shift in teen prosecutions created a strain on the state’s youth detention centers, where escapes, riots and attacks on staff became more frequent.

Edwards authorized the renovation of the former death row building at the adult state penitentiary in Angola to house the most problematic teens, which led to a lawsuit and a federal judge’s order to relocate them. The state is also moving away from dormitory-style youth prisons to individual cells.

Landry has appointed a controversial new director for the state Office of Juvenile Justice, which oversees the youth correctional system. Kenny Loftin was previously in charge of Ware Youth Center, a facility in Coushatta that was the focus of a 2022 New York Times investigation that highlighted multiple allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

The report did not accuse Loftin directly of wrongdoing, but he was the leader at Ware when the reported incidents happened. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus have called on Landry to rescind his appointment of Loftin.

Landry also wants to require electronic access for criminal records from juvenile court, though his call doesn’t specific whether the records should be available to the public. Juvenile proceedings have traditionally been shielded.

Public defender overhaul

In an unexpected move, the governor also wants the Legislature to create an Office of State Public Defender under his purview “for the delivery of indigent defense services.”

The Louisiana Public Defender Board, created in 2007, is already part of the executive branch of state government but not directly part of the governor’s office. A long-standing concern for the state’s public defender system is that relies on fees assessed against defendants and traffic fines for the majority of its revenue.

This funding instability has been at the heart of lawsuits against the board and state from criminal social advocacy groups  for failing to meet their constitutionally required criminal defense obligations.

Landry did not make public defense a part of his campaign, although he helped orchestrate a deal to have Attorney General Liz Murrill assist the Orleans Parish District Attorney with prosecutions that result from State Police arrests in New Orleans. More troopers will be stationed in the city to help offset manpower shortages in the New Orleans Police Department.

Pruned parole leniency

The greatest number of items on the governor’s call involve matters dealing with parole and the ability of incarcerated persons to reduce or seek relief after conviction. The first is by far the broadest – “to restrict parole eligibility” – and gives lawmakers significant leeway to limit ways people can reduce their time in prison.

More specifically, the call instructs the Legislature “to restrict or repeal the earning rate of good time, or the diminution of sentence for good behavior, and earned compliance credits.” Members are also asked “to expand the criteria for which probation and parole may be revoked for technical violations.

The end result would keep people in prison longer, in direct contrast to Edwards’ efforts to place the incarcerated back in the community once they met the obligations of their sentence.

Further, Landry was lawmakers to place limits and restrictions on “post-conviction relief.” It’s an issue on which he went head-to-head with Edwards, who late in his tenure changed his stance on capital punishment and called for all persons condemned to death to instead serve life sentences in prison.

As attorney general, Landry sought court intervention when Edwards directed the parole board to conduct clemency hearings to reconsider the sentences of more than 50 people on Louisiana’s death row.

Also on the special session agenda is a request “to increase the powers of the board,” with no specifics provided for the latter, and require unanimous decisions from the state parole board. Currently, unanimous votes are already required in certain cases, such as crimes of violence against police and shortening life sentences for second-degree murder. In most other cases, a majority decision is needed from the five-member board to grant someone parole, or just two votes when only three members need to convene to consider clemency appeals.

Other topics

Landry also wants the Legislature provide immunity from liability to police officers and the public agencies that employ them. The same protection would be extended to persons allowed to carry concealed handguns.

More people should be allowed to carry concealed weapons without a permit, according to the governor’s call. State Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, has failed multiple times to gain approval for a bill that would allowed so-called “constitutional carry.” Opposition to his proposal has come from police organizations, church leaders and domestic violence survivors.

Such as proposal could put Landry, a former sheriff’s deputy, at odds with several law enforcement leaders who’ve been staunch opponents of McCormick’s legislation.

The governor also wants to make the “predatory marketing” of fentanyl to minors a crime in Louisiana. Last year, the Legislature approved tougher penalties for fentanyl possession based on quantity in order to target drug dealers and manufacturers.

Critics of last year’s legislation said lawmakers should better address demand for the illegal drug, given that already strict laws against possession and distribution haven’t curbed its presence.

Legislators are also being asked to address the prosecution of third-degree rape, when victims are unable for various reasons to resist, consent or understand the sexual act and the perpetrators is aware of their lack of capacity.

One item seemingly unrelated to crime or public safety involves redistricting of the Louisiana Supreme Court. It calls for the Legislature to act “relative to the approval of any order of settlement” in a 2019 federal lawsuit the NAACP filed against the state. The plaintiffs sought additional representative for Black voters on the court.

The same agenda item also appears to allow lawmakers to actually redraw the Louisiana Supreme Court’s districts – an attempt that failed to gain approval during last month’s election-related special session.

Editor’s Note: The following article from author Greg Larose was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization with a mission to cast light on how decisions in Baton Rouge are made and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisianians. Read more from The Louisiana Illuminator @ www.lailluminator.com

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