Mandatory minimum sentences were on the chopping block, as well as other measures previously enacted by lawmakers who wanted to be tough on crime. The harsher penalties created a booming prison population, overworked courts and strained budgets. Collectively, the group came up with a few ways to ease sentences and carve out alternatives to incarceration.
What a difference five years can make.
"The irony of all that is we've come full circle again," says Metairie Rep. Danny Martiny, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee. "One year we create the crime, then we come back and create the mandatory minimum sentence, then we take away [time off for good behavior]. Pretty soon, it mounts up."
Martiny and others believe it's time to take more of a cautious approach in the Legislature and revisit criminal statutes to create viable options to long prison sentences. If the system continues to operate without changes, serious problems lurking under the surface could rise up and detonate.
Prosecutors contend they're being stretched thin because defendants are now virtually forced to go to trial. Judges fear this trend will impact the civil docket, which is already competing for attention with criminal cases. Yet even with all the voices clamoring for reform, one overriding factor could thwart any momentum on the issue.
"It's not that we don't have the tools and resources for such a review," Martiny says. "It's if anyone wants to tangle with these issues right now. And next year will be even more difficult because it's an election year, and there will be people who will want to be tough on crime again."
There's the political rub. No elected official wants to be viewed as soft, and legislators are under pressure from their constituents to display real grit. As a result, they're often pushing stiffer laws in hopes of obtaining federal prison incentives.
Houma Democratic Rep. Damon Baldone serves on the criminal justice committee and is no stranger to mandatory minimums and escalating penalties. Last year, before news cameras captured images of post-Katrina thievery on Canal Street, he passed legislation to establish a minimum jail sentence of three years for looting during a natural disaster. Now Baldone is back this year trying to prohibit such offenders from receiving time off for good behavior.
He admits not every law-breaker should be sent directly to jail ' depending on their circumstances ' but says the Legislature's authority to dictate sentences should not be completely phased out.
"A special crime for beating up a vending machine, rather than damage to property, is ridiculous," Baldone argues, "but creating something special for theft (or looting) in a case where police are otherwise occupied is different."
Lawmakers have taken advantage of their right to file mandatory minimum bills, to the tune of two dozen on average each year since 2001. Additionally, just for the ongoing regular session, lawmakers filed another 22 measures that would create new crimes, such as theft of oilfield equipment, assault on a utility worker with a firearm and picketing a funeral.
If every bill passed every session, the financial impact would be substantial. For instance, Metairie Rep. Steve Scalise filed legislation this year to create a new crime for hurricane relief fraud, which would differ only slightly from the standard definition of fraud already on the books. It requires at least two years in prison. According to a fiscal analysis, this bill alone would cost the state more than $16,000 annually ' just for the prison system, not the courts.
On the judicial side, this trend is forcing the courts to face an eventual breakdown, says Hugo A. Holland Jr., an assistant district attorney in Caddo Parish and a member of several prosecutors' groups. With more people deciding to go to trial, resources and manpower are evaporating at an alarming rate.
"Penalties are becoming so draconian that people are willing to roll the dice and go to trial," Holland says. "[The Legislature] passes things, and they end up having unintentional consequences."
One potential outcome is that criminal cases could make it tough on civil cases to get equal attention in courtrooms around the state. "You have to give priority to criminal cases because there's a time limit on when you can prosecute them," says Judge Robert H. "Bob" Morrison, a district court judge from Amite and spokesman for the Louisiana District Judges Association. Morrison says the bench should have more discretion to iron out criminal matters like sentences and statutory limits.
Orleans is the only parish in the state where this isn't a problem, since criminal and civil cases are separated. But there has been an ongoing effort among some lawmakers to consolidate Crescent City courts following Hurricane Katrina.
In some respects, the more specific new crimes become, the easier they are to defend, due to the prosecution's responsibility to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt, says George F. Steimel, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"We probably already have every crime there is to have on the books, but people keep creating these specialty crimes," Steimel says. "Everyone wants special protections, from businesses to residents, and they feel if they create the crime and define it, it'll get rid of it."
Louisiana's prison population has more than doubled since 2000, and the prison system requires more money every year. Richard Stalder, state corrections secretary, says he doesn't mind taking more prisoners into the system, just as long as there's some accountability from lawmakers for sending them there.
Sometimes emotions play a part in excessive laws, like the fiery debate during the '70s that gave birth to life sentences for heroin possession. Only later did people realize that other drugs were equally dangerous, even though they carried lighter penalties.
"Sometimes we just overreact," Martiny says. "We should take a step back and calm down, but that's hard to do."
Cell phones, for instance, have spurred recently filed bills banning their use when driving or when being arrested by a police officer. And comments by Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly slamming Louisiana's sex offender laws prompted legislators to file nearly three dozen bills addressing the topic this year.
An in-depth review is "not out of order," says Pete Adams, who has been lobbying the Legislature for more than 30 years as executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. But for this to happen, the interested parties will have to wait for new leadership to come in, at which point elections would have wrung out any fears, term-limited lawmakers will be gone, and the entire Capitol will practically be a blank slate.
"Then we will have some people who will have to live with the future impact in coming years," Adams says. "Someone will have to be accountable."
Citizens, you have less than a week to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election. Remember, if you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome. Well, you can but it’s kind of hypocritical.
After being forced out by its former landlords last year, the community garden has a new location and a 10-year lease.
The party says it has hit a milestone, reaching 10,000 registered voters in the state.
Defensive captain Junior Galette is disgusted by the Saints' sluggish start.
The use of $60 million in Louisiana's public school financing formula to pay for nearly three dozen charter schools violates the state constitution, a statewide teachers' union claimed Monday in a lawsuit.
Security breach at White House; Bejing won't back down from protesters; pressure on third-graders and more national and international news for Tuesday, September 30, 2014.
Tuesday's Blogs from the Bog!
February trial date indicates parties were unable to negotiate a settlement.
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Jerry Jones watched what he called the best effort he's seen in 25 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in the first half, and that was before Tony Romo had the longest scramble of his career and DeMarco Murray finished off yet another 100-yard game.
Two of the most recognizable women in Republican politics, Sarah Palin and Mary Matalin, have been heavily involved in Louisiana’s current election cycle.
Even though the Louisiana Democratic Party has thrown its support behind former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ congressional bid, national Democrats are not expected to follow suit.
“[Mike] is no longer the energetic ADA that his recent ad is trying to portray. I just think Mike needs to get the hell out.” — Kermit Harson, DA Mike Harson’s brother
The New Orleans Saints have listed Jonathan Goodwin as questionable for Sunday night's game in Dallas, raising the prospect that second-year pro Tim Lelito will start at center for the first time.
The endorsements keep coming for District 9 LPSB candidate Jeremy Hidalgo, who picked up his fifth vow of support Thursday, this time from the Chamber’s political action committee.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter will be out knocking on doors this weekend with anti-abortion activists encouraging people to vote against his colleague, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
The ACLU of Louisiana has sued Abbeville's mayor and police chief over a policy barring police from any social media use showing the city in a bad light.
Prospective Republican presidential candidates are expected to promote "religious liberty" at home and abroad at a gathering of religious conservatives Friday, with anti-Obama speeches from the likes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The American Zombie blog by New Orleans independent journalist Jason Berry has a photograph of U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier having dinner with Lafayette attorney Pat Juneau — yeah, that Pat Juneau, the BP claims administrator whose fate Barbier will soon decide.
But retirees and employees who face the higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs responded angrily, telling lawmakers that they shouldn't be held responsible for what they consider the Jindal administration's mismanagement of the Office of Group Benefits.
Indictment accuses ‘chef’ who claims to work for the needy of stealing from a disabled man in his care.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's top budget adviser says the state employee health insurance program will face a dire financial scenario without the heavily criticized changes planned by the administration.
Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, and plans for the next lethal injection have been put on hold amid an ongoing legal dispute about the drugs that would be used. More than 80 people are on death row, awaiting execution, in Louisiana.
If the Saints' defense hasn't corrected early season errors it could be in for a long Sunday night.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is traveling to the Citgo refinery near Lake Charles to highlight her successful stalling of a bill to impose sanctions against human-rights abusers in Venezuela's government.