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."
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The former star of Saturday Night Live throws in his 2 cents on the Big Oil lawsuit.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday, March 10, 2014:
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.
A federal appeals panel ruled Monday that businesses don't have to prove that they were directly harmed by BP's 2010 Gulf Of Mexico oil spill to collect settlement payments.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has closed Interstate 10 from I-49 in Lafayette to Seigen Lane in Baton Rouge.