NOTE: The new law DOES NOT apply to anyone who was already serving time. It WILL NOT change the parole eligibility of anyone who was convicted before the new law. Anyone wanting to help VOTE push to create changes for people already incarcerated should Contact Us.
Today, Governor John Bel Edwards took another significant step in the right direction on criminal justice reform, signing HB 802 into law and giving people an opportunity for earlier parole release. Coming on the heels of last week’s new law to Ban the Box on thousands of state jobs, and signing the Raise the Age bill (prosecuting 17 year olds in the juvenile system rather than as adults) two other bills VOTE strongly supported, we are encouraged by both the legislature and governor in recognizing the need for comprehensive reforms.
Unfortunately, however, HB 802 will not apply retroactively.
Eligibility: From 85% to 75% for People Convicted of Violent Crimes
The new law is not without complications, however, as it only applies to people who are being sentenced to violent crimes after its enactment. This means roughly 12,000 people convicted of violent crimes (who are not serving Life) will need to wait until 85% of their time is complete before their first parole eligibility. Any cost savings will take years, if not decades, to be realized. The average sentence in Louisiana is 22 years, but for people convicted of violent crimes the average is much higher.
The irony of the new law can be found in the case of Trevor Holmes, who went to court because his eligibility (on a 40 year sentence) was increased to 85% in 1997. The court ruled that increasing parole eligibility is not an increase in punishment, so there was no issues of ex post facto punishment. Prior to the enhancement, people were eligible on their 1st offense in 33% of the full term, 2nd offense was 50%, and 3rd offense was no parole. This does not ensure release by any means, it merely meant the parole board would review their progress and (at times) give guidance on what positive steps they might take to gain release. For the state to begin realizing that increasing eligibility to 85% was perhaps a bit too far, it is reasonable to apply this law and reduce Mr. Holmes’ eligibility down to 75%.
The new law reduces eligibility to 75%, and if it applied retroactively, the state could potentially save millions of dollars on those people who are not gaining early release through good time parole. As it stands, people are released on Good Time Parole Supervision in roughly two-thirds of their time.
Realistically, most people engaged in positive behavior while incarcerated will be released before ever seeing the parole board.
Among the 12,000 people the law will not apply to, 3,800 of them are over the age 50. These people are serving an average of sentence of 22 years (with 12 years in thus far), and are likely to be released after serving 15 years… over two years prior to their parole eligibility.
Not only should the 85% be reduced retroactively to 75%, it should come down to 50% for the state to have genuine opportunities to save money, instill hope, and increase reentry success. This requires the state to first, recognize that our punishments are excessive and costly, compared to other states in America; secondly, the state needs to show faith in the DOC, a conservative entity that is not granting early releases to people who don’t show positive signs on the inside.
Parole Board Voting: From Unanimous to Majority Vote
These 12,000 people currently convicted of violent crimes will need a unanimous vote of the parole board, rather than newly convicted people only needing a simple majority. In Louisiana, where few people are actually released through parole (and most people on parole are due to earning “good time” days that convert incarceration into parole supervision) there is still a 41% success rate at the parole board. With a majority vote, that number could double. The state could save millions of dollars from releasing thousands of people just a couple years earlier.
Changing to the majority vote will mostly impact people serving Life sentences for non-violent crimes; people who do not earn Good Time, and will only get out through the parole board. Those people will have over twenty years in prison and be over 45 years old to be eligible under the “20/45 Law” that began with the inside advocacy by the Angola Special Civics Project (the origin of VOTE). This new provision, the majority vote, may not reap many benefits until 2036- when someone newly convicted has twenty years inside and goes to the parole board. Unless more changes are made.
Eligibiilty for Reentry Programming
The new law also allows people convicted of violent crimes, from now onward, to participate in the DOC’s reentry preparation program. But what about someone who might get out next year after thirty years in prison? It makes very little sense that, if the program is creating positive results, people would be denied the chance to participate- and society would be effectively denying them a better chance at a successful transition into the community.
The 2016 legislature argued over several bills that would have created a parole-eligible Life sentence for children convicted prior to 2014, known as “Miller Kids,” after the U.S. Supreme Court held that children cannot receive mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences. Each of the proposals included a provision that a person needed to complete the reentry program to be parole eligible. This is a program they are currently barred from, due to the crime of violence, and HB 802 could have changed that.
In 2017, the Louisiana legislature will be in a fiscal session, so new criminal justice reforms will need to wait until 2018. Whether it is the retroactivity of parole reforms or the possibility of parole for children convicted of 1st and 2nd degree murder, we will likely be hearing from the courts and the Governor’s office before 2018. These issues don’t take a year off, just because the legislature is structured that way.
It isn’t easy to keep a positive frame of mind in prison day after day, year after year, in a place full of negativity and despair at every turn. Those who learn non-violent conflict resolution skills, who learn to avoid the signs of trouble, who learn to get along with both their community (from their comrades to their captors) are doing so in the most challenging scenario imaginable. These are essential character traits for people who must eventually face massive discrimination and rejection when seeking housing, education, jobs, and voting. These are traits that need to be honed, encouraged, and (at times) rewarded. The new parole reform is a step in much needed direction.