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."
The Lafayette superintendent insists the budget is illegal and vows to fight on.
"I am not a scientist," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said numerous times, a response that other members of his party have parroted.
Republicans are running strong races against endangered Democratic incumbents in states such as North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska. Republicans are also looking to replace retiring Democrats in Iowa and West Virginia with a GOP lawmaker.
Republican congressman Vance McAllister is trying to make up to Louisiana voters for getting too close to a married former employee.
You may not like all of “it,” but U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, unlike many of her colleagues, isn't sitting around twiddling her thumbs in Congress.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro says he "can't wait" to play against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The heat keeps rising for Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal as a new slate of corruption allegations surfaced this week.
If opposing defenses sell out to stop the Packers' passing game, they risk being gashed by powerful running back Eddie Lacy, a New Orleans-area native.
At the horn the officiating crew trotted to the tunnel and left security personnel to clean up after them.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Sign "ninjas" cleaning up clutter; NYC doctor positive for Ebola; Ferguson grand jury decision nears; and more national and international news for Friday, October 24, 2014.
We can safely assume incumbent Chief K.P. Gibson isn’t too worried about this challenger.
Nationally, Republicans must gain six seats to win Senate control. The most competitive races, many in states where Obama lost in 2012, remain too close to call.
The Baton Rouge Republican has repeatedly battled a perception within his own party that he perhaps wasn't the best choice to carry the GOP banner.
Even if Jimmy Graham's production dips while the star tight end recovers from a shoulder injury, it looks like Drew Brees won't have much trouble finding other targets.
A former campaign manager for Senate candidate Rob Maness is striking at the Republican contender's tea party support, saying Maness only sought to appeal to conservative organizations because he needed money for his campaign.
Ninety-two percent of public school teachers were rated either effective or highly effective in a report the state issued marking the second year of a new statewide evaluation process.
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.