Bill reducing jail sentences passes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 14, 2001

AP and staff reports

State Sen. Charles Jones’ legislation reducing the severity of some drug sentences and doing away with mandatory jail time for many nonviolent criminals won final approval in the House on a 65-35 vote.

Wednesday afternoon’s vote sends the bill to Gov. Mike Foster, who has praised it as a means of helping more prisoners achieve rehabilitation while saving $60 million a year in prison costs.

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Some of those savings will be offset, backers acknowledge, by a need for more drug treatment programs and more probation and parole officers.

Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell said that while he is not familiar with details of the bill, he is concerned with the idea of reducing sentences, especially for drug offenders.

&uot;I’m against putting them out on the street without any type of rehabilitation, … and I&160;believe it could come back to haunt us,&uot;&160;Maxwell said. &uot;My job is to put them in jail, and apparently (Jones’) job is to let them out.&uot;

Jones’ bill was the result of a hard-won compromise involving lawmakers of differing political stripes, victims rights groups, prison reformers prosecutors and the governor’s office.

The measure does not reduce the sentence of anyone already convicted, although it does set up a ”risk review panel” to make recommendations on parole for prisoners convicted before the law takes effect.

Jones’ measure gives judges the option of allowing probation or sentence suspension for more than a dozen nonviolent crimes including theft, simple possession of small amounts of drugs, bribery and prostitution.

Laws taking away judges’ options in such crimes became popular in the 1990s, but even some of the Legislature’s most conservative members have said some of those laws may have gone too far.

Mandatory jail time remains in place for more serious drug distribution convictions under Jones’ bill but the length of sentences would be shortened.

Wednesday’s vote was on compromise language worked out by three senators and three House members early in the week.

To the end, hard-core opponents fought the bill, saying there were provisions that were of too great a benefit to criminals.

Rep. Emma Devillier, D-Plaquemine and a former prosecutor, complained that the bill was not restrictive enough regarding the creation of the risk review panels. She said she feared the bill will afford