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Effects of Louisiana’s Special Session on Crime May Take Years to Fully Assess

The sun shines through concertina wire on a fence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La, April 26, 2014.
Gerald Herbert
The sun shines through concertina wire on a fence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La, April 26, 2014.

While many of us have heard reactions to the 11 bills to come out of the session and signed into law last week by the governor, we have not heard as much from some of those most impacted - criminal defense attorneys.

The full impact of Louisiana’s special legislative session on crime, back in February, may not be revealed for months or even years from now. One thing is for sure, we’ve heard a wide variety of reactions from across the political spectrum. Republicans have lauded the nine-day session as a promise fulfilled to get tough on crime. Democrats, meanwhile, felt powerless to stop the swift approval of 11 bills, with the GOP enjoying a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, along with a Republican back in the governor’s mansion.

Prison Policy Initiative

Just last week, Governor Jeff Landry signed those bills into law, some of which included legislation to potentially keep more people in prison longer, and all but eliminating parole for most people who are jailed in the future. Louisiana, once known as the world’s prison capital, still has the 13th highest incarceration rate in the country. But supporters say that legislation will reduce cases of inmates only serving a fraction of their sentence, and perhaps even reduce the recidivism rate, in which Louisiana ranks 11th.
But, thus far, we have not heard quite as much from some of the very people who will likely be among the most affected by the changes to the Louisiana criminal code - defense attorneys. So, we reached out to Shreveport attorney Sarah Smith. She is a former public defender [in Caddo & Webster Parishes] who still focuses primarily on criminal defense cases.

Sarah E. Smith is a Shreveport Attorney
Sarah E. Smith is a Shreveport Attorney

Smith says she understands the need for changes to push back against the surge in violent crime. But she questions whether some of the new laws will improve public safety. That includes a return to charging 17-year-olds as adults, before reform efforts during the previous administration, seven years ago, had stopped that practice. “There’s no studies that show whether you’re an adult at 17 or 18, or if that has any impact on crime rates. I think we’re still going to have the same amounts of crime. It’s just going to change which system handled it after it happened. And also, I think there could be a negative impact where they could be mixing with adult prison populations and possibly learn how to be better criminals.”
Smith recalls the moment that simply “blew her mind ” during the special session. She says this episode had begun with optimism. “One of the measures that I did like was requiring juveniles who are old enough to get a high school diploma, or its equivalent, in order to be eligible for parole, before they get released.”

Prison Policy Initiative

Yet, for Smith, the optimism was short-lived when lawmakers rejected the amendment that would have required the Office of Juvenile Justice to provide those programs to juveniles in custody. Smith lamented, “So, on the one hand they’re saying, ‘okay, we want these kids to get an education while they’re in custody.’ But we’re not going to actually make the Office of Juvenile Justice provide that education, nor are we going to give them any increased funding to provide those programs.”
For Smith, herself a lawyer who has represented countless indigent defendants over the years, there is no obvious political messaging for one party or the other, or an activist with an overt agenda. Instead, she arrived at a very immediate, personal, and discouraging conclusion saying, “Oh it blew my mind,” adding, “To me, that sent a message that we’re not actually trying to rehabilitate juveniles. We just want to make it look like we are. And really, instead, what we’re doing is we’re putting hurdles in place to keep them from getting rehabilitated and getting back out.”

ACLU Louisiana

In short, Smith is among the many political observers who fear the most visible result of the special session could eventually become apparent inside Louisiana’s prison system, an impact which is expected to be felt statewide. That is largely because more than half of Louisiana’s prisoner population is locked up in parish jails.
According to recently released federal data by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Louisiana has the highest rate in the country for using local jails for state incarceration. In the vast majority of other states, less than 10% of prisoners are serving sentences in local jails, compared to Louisiana at 53%.

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, and a graduate of the University of Washington, Jeff began his on-air broadcasting career 33 years ago in the Black Hills of South Dakota as a general assignment reporter.