District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington recently shared an overview of criminal justice related legislation from the 2023 Legislative Session. The Legislature adjourned on June 9 after hearing over 600 bills offered for consideration, and over 100 bills relating to criminal justice.
“District attorneys, law enforcement leaders, victims rights advocates, and Louisiana citizens joined together in Baton Rouge to support strengthening criminal justice laws that will better protect our people from crime. Additionally, we worked to defend the rule of law by opposing legislation that put the interests of violent criminals ahead of victims of crime,” said District Attorney Harrington.
The rise in juvenile violent crime was a prevailing topic of discussion during several hearings of the House Committee on the Administration of Justice. Legislators heard testimony from district attorneys regarding the increase of juvenile crime, the overwhelming cost to house juvenile offenders, and the impact of a 2021 law that classifies 17-year-old criminal defendants as juveniles rather than adults. Because of limited bed space to house juvenile offenders in facilities that meet federal guidelines, prosecutors are forced to transport the offenders to other jurisdictions, sometimes in other states, or release them into the custody of a family member while they await the disposition of their charge. Legislators discussed in committee hearings that they have seen a spike in violent crimes, particularly robberies and carjackings, committed by 17-year-olds. In Natchitoches Parish, 59% of juvenile crimes were committed by 17-year-old offenders in 2021.
District attorneys supported Senate Bill 159, which finally passed both houses by a two-thirds majority vote margin, that will again classify 17- year-olds who are charged with a crime of violence as an adult. Also, House Bill 54 was passed which will give prosecutors more discretion to prosecute juveniles who are charged with certain violent crimes. And, House Bill 523 allows for law enforcement to detain an arrested juvenile offender for 48 hours before transporting them to a juvenile facility or releasing them.
“The result of the ‘raise the age’ law that was enacted several years ago is not in the best interest of justice or for crime victims. Our law enforcement partners tell us that when 17-year-olds are committing violent crimes and then are considered children in the justice system, they do not fear serious consequences for their actions. And, on many occasions they are immediately released upon arrest to a parent in lieu of pre-trial lockup due to lack of juvenile facility availability.
“These three pieces of legislation will help us in addressing violent crimes that are being committed by youthful offenders in Louisiana,” said Harrington. The Legislature also passed legislation to toughen the penalties for the manufacturing and distribution of fentanyl. Harrington said, “the trafficking of fentanyl delivers death. It kills people. It’s a horrible poison that has no place in our society. And those who facilitate the distribution of fentanyl should be prosecuted and incarcerated.”
In response to the public outcry to the rise of fentanyl deaths in Louisiana, district attorneys supported House Bill 90, which increases prison sentences for fentanyl distributors. If convicted for distributing fentanyl less than 28 grams, about 1 ounce, the sentence ranges from five to 40 years of imprisonment. Subsequent convictions would increase the prison sentences. Additionally, if a person is convicted of possessing more than 250 grams or more, the prison sentence shall be life imprisonment at hard labor, with a minimum of 25 years without parole.
The Legislature also enacted House Bill 498 which establishes a mandatory minimum bail amount for certain offenses. A minimum bail of $50,000 must be set for a crime of violence and a minimum bail of $100,000 for a crime of violence in which the defendant used a firearm during the commission of the crime.
“These bills will give prosecutors more options to remove dangerous and violent criminals from harming our citizens,” said Harrington. District attorneys also successfully repelled efforts to eliminate the death penalty, decriminalize the possession and distribution of marijuana, and the retrying of past non-unanimous jury trials.