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SPLC Action Fund: Louisiana criminal justice reform bills a good start, but more work remains

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed two bills into law this week that will improve transparency in police activities and save taxpayer money by eliminating lengthy sentences that are not warranted.

House Bill 506 (HB 506) creates a task force that will improve the collection and reporting of data on basic law enforcement activities. House Bill 518 (HB 518) will reform the state’s habitual offender statute by eliminating certain first-time, nonviolent offenses from later being eligible for sentencing enhancements.

Both laws will bolster criminal justice reform in a state that has once again become the world’s incarceration capital, imprisoning 719 of every 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“By signing HB 506 into law, Louisiana has finally come to terms with the fact that it must require data collection from all law enforcement agencies,” said Terry Landry Jr., policy counsel for the SPLC Action Fund, a member of Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA), a diverse statewide coalition committed to reducing Louisiana’s imprisonment rate by ensuring the state passes and implements comprehensive justice reform. 

“When data is not collected, agencies operate without the key information they need to make informed decisions, and the public is left in the dark,” Landry said. “Data informs better policing and forges trust between law enforcement and the people they’re sworn to protect and serve. Better data will make Louisiana safer.”

Tim Hitt, a former police officer in the city of Monroe and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, agreed.

“Police-community trust is essential to preventing and solving crime,” Hitt said. “When our departments fail to collect data to show that we are enforcing the law in a just manner, we are undermining this trust. We must track and publish traffic stop statistics to strengthen our relationship with the community.”

HB 518, regarding habitual offenders, will stop wasting taxpayer money on the incarceration of people who do not pose a danger to society.

“By excluding certain first-time, nonviolent offenses from applying to future habitual offender enhancements, House Bill 518 represents a modest step forward in preventing lengthy sentences when they are not warranted,” said Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC Action Fund. “Our work on this issue, however, is not done. Instead of addressing the root causes of repeat offenses, the habitual offender statute punishes these symptoms. And Louisiana taxpayers are footing the bill for these long, harmful, and ineffective prison sentences. We need to fully move on from this outdated and expensive practice and invest in a safer Louisiana.”

Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, agreed.

Louisiana’s so-called habitual offender law is a major driver of mass incarceration that does nothing to make our communities safer,” Hebert said. “More work must be done to fix this unjust law, but House Bill 518 is a sensible, incremental reform that will prevent certain first-time offenses from being used to lengthen future sentences unfairly or bully defendants into pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.”

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