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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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Changes coming to habitual offender law

Changes coming to habitual offender law

Local district attorneys are preparing for changes in the state’s habitual offender law that take effect Nov. 1.

Under the current habitual offender law, repeat offenders receive substantially longer prison sentences.

For example, Houma resident Kentreal Jarbar Howard was convicted for possession with the intent to distribute cocaine on Jan. 12. However, because Howard had a history of drug-related convictions, prosecutors filed a habitual offender bill against him and he was given a 30-year prison sentence in June.

“Habitual offender bills are filed on a case-by-case basis based on the crime, the effect of that crime and the criminal,” said Terrebonne Parish First Assistant District Attorney Jason Dagate. “It’s used as an enhancement tool of the sentence. It’s not a separate crime in itself. It strictly deals with the amount of time somebody serves in jail based on their criminal record.”

Some critics have pointed to Louisiana’s habitual offender law as one of the contributing factors for the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found that about 79 percent of the 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole were sentenced to die in prison for non-violent drug crimes.

Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health and Justice, said the current habitual offender law is an anathema to the criminal justice reform advocated by the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“The habitual offender process is a great way to bankrupt the state,” Scharf said. “The fiscal impact of it is enormous. Think of a young kid who’s 25 years old and gets a 30-year sentence. The average cost of a prison sentence in Louisiana is roughly $20,000 per year. That’s $600,000 that could have paid for a special education teacher for 20 years. Judges get tired of these guys, so they sock them with the habitual offender bill. I have a friend who said the habitual offender law is the best pathway to socialized medicine.”

Lafourche Parish First Assistant District Attorney Kristine Russell contends the habitual offender statute plays a crucial role in the criminal justice system because it gives prosecutors a tool to help keep violent offenders behind bars.

“Here in Lafourche we don’t use it often, but when we do, we take a look at rap sheets and look at what type of crime the individual committed,” Russell said. “Have they been law-abiding citizens or do they just re-offend? We don’t take it lightly. It’s a tool that we use to protect society.”

As part of the criminal justice reform package approved by lawmakers over the summer, the new habitual offender law won’t be as stringent as the current statute.

Nonviolent repeat offenders convicted on drug-related charges will not be subjected to life in prison under the new law, and multiple offenders will face shorter sentences.

Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, who also works as a criminal defense attorney, has witnessed firsthand the habitual offender bill in action. He was one of the lawmakers who helped bring about the state’s criminal justice overhaul.

“The habitual offender law is a powerful tool for the DA’s office to put away truly bad people, but under the old law it was really capturing a lot of people who were not violent criminals who are more likely to be drug addicts,” Magee said. “It was forcing them to plea in situations where they weren’t necessarily guilty of their crimes.”

“All we did with the new law was clarify those crimes which are the ones we really want to use the habitual offender law and those crimes that we would like to see someone get a second chance,” Magee added. “Those would include your drug possession guys and nonviolent offenders. The justice system isn’t built for them taking 60 years for just being a drug addict.”

Under the new law, judges can suspend or reduce sentences for offenders convicted of a third felony, and the time between felony convictions used to file the habitual offender bill will be shortened.

While Russell said she supports criminal justice reform, she added that the state needs to put a plan in place to transition nonviolent offenders back into society.

“There’s a reason why we have prisons and there is a reason why these individuals can’t live among the rest of us,” Russell said. “It shouldn’t just be about letting people out of prison. We need to develop programs to help people who are addicts. I’m all for reform, but we need to develop a way to give them the treatment they need.”

Changes to the habitual offender law will not apply to those who are already serving time in prison.

-- Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 857-2202 or at Follow him on Twitter@DanVCopp.