by Joshua Levine

Since the passage of bold bipartisan criminal justice reforms in 2017, Louisiana’s lawmakers have continued working on this issue. The aim of these reforms were to sensibly reduce the state’s incarceration rate to improve public safety and recidivism. Louisiana currently leads the nation with 719 individuals imprisoned per 100,00 residents.

Even though Louisiana continues to struggle to reduce its high rate, there were four key reform bills passed in 2020 that have kept the positive momentum moving. One of those pieces of legislation was Senate Bill 354, by Senator Patrick McMath. This bill requires the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to provide previous offenders with state issued ID cards, which list all licenses and professional certifications they earned while incarcerated. Just a few examples of professions Louisiana regulates are barbers, manicurists, landscape contractors, and even florists. By having proof of their licenses on an ID card, released individuals will be far more likely to find a job and avoid reoffending. To support this initiative, the state is employing “transition specialists” to handle the ID cards and assist individuals with their plans for rejoining their community.

Another important step forward that was taken during the regular legislative session was House Bill 77 by Representative Devillier. It establishes and sets guidelines for virtual meetings between probation officers and parolees. This new practice helps released offenders, who are working long, uncompromising hours and cannot afford to miss a shift, to meet in-person. Virtual meetings utilizing voice and video connectivity can substitute for the traditional structure which will provide greater flexibility for released offenders. With these new guidelines in place, virtual meetings for released offenders allows them the freedom to shape their lives, stay employed, and avoid re-incarceration.

Staying on course for reform, House Concurrent Resolution 3, by Speaker Pro Tem Magee, continues the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding. Welcomed with broad, bipartisan support, this resolution passed through both chambers without a single vote cast against it. This commission studies and recommends reforms to the funding structure of Louisiana’s justice system. In place of a traditional taxation system, the justice system in Louisiana utilizes questionable funding practices like civil asset forfeiture and revenue gleaned from court fees. Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize private property that allegedly related to a crime before the individual is actually charged with a crime, and it also comes with a lower standard of evidence

According to an Institute for Justice report, 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds in Louisiana go towards law enforcement. Louisiana district attorneys seized more than $99 million between 2000 and 2014, 88 percent of which resulted from cash forfeitures. In August 2019, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the funding structure of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court violates due process rights because “it creates the temptation for judges to focus on raising money, not impartial justice.” The continuation of this commission allows legislators time to gather more evidence on how to reform this troubling practice for justice system funding.

Another effort aiming to improve funding practices was House Bill 481. This legislation arms public officials with greater oversight of revenue gleaned from fines and fees. It requires local and state law enforcement that receive revenue from “pre- or post- adjudication costs, fines, and fees” to follow uniform audit reporting. This requires local and state officials to follow a standardized terminology and reporting standard for revenue assessed, collected, outstanding, retained, and disbursed through court costs, fines, and fees.

In 2015, criminal justice agencies in New Orleans collected $11.7 million, four percent of total revenue for justice agencies, through bail, fines, and fees from citizens guilty of a crime. An example of a fine would be the penalty owed by an individual found guilty of speeding in a school zone or in possession of a controlled substance. Conversely, a fee represents revenue gleaned from a defendant to support the court system such as court clerk fees or jury fees.

As illustrated by the Fifth Circuit, funding the Justice System through fines and fees is corrosive to the state’s legal institutions. This decision, coupled with findings from the commission, reinforces the need to monitor these practices and enact further reforms. Uniform audit reporting will create clarity and increase accountability within the system statewide.

Louisiana’s commitment to criminal justice reform has yielded great success for the state, and it must continue. This means the state must continue to make smart decisions when implementing reforms and focus on the ultimate goal of improving public safety and making better use of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Removing barriers to jobs and opportunity for released offenders and addressing laws that incentivize poor governance is the best path forward for Louisiana.