By Anitra Brown
Tribune Staff

In a 9-7 vote, the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday (April 17) to kill House Bill 355, which would remove non-violent offenses from the list of offenses that can result in habitual offender sentencing enhancements.

The move comes as a disappointment to groups, such as Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, advocating for criminal justice reform. State Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) and State Rep. John H. Bagneris (D-New Orleans) were two of the votes cast in favor of HB 355, which was authored by State Rep. Chad Brown (D-Plaquemine). Other committee members voting in favor of the bill were State Reps. Barbara Carpenter, Randal Gaines, Edward “Ted” James, Denise Marcelle and Barbara Norton.

The nine votes that killed the bill came from Republicans Tony Bacala, Raymond Crews, Stephen Dwight, Lowell “Chris” Hazel, Nicolas Muscarello, Steve Pylant, John Stefanski and Howard Frank, along with Independent Joseph Moreno, who represents parts of Terrytown and Gretna in Jefferson Parish.

The bill’s failure means Louisiana will likely continue to lead the nation in number of people incarnated per capita for the foreseeable future. Seventy-eight percent of the state’s habitual offender convictions are for non-violent offenses, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office. And according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts Foundation, Louisiana’s prison population is growing five times faster than the state’s population.

The goal of the habitual offender enhancement is to put repeat violent offenders behind bars for a lengthy period of time, but it is often used in cases where the sentence enhancement does not fit the crime.

In 2016, Jacobia Grimes could have faced a 20-year to life sentence for stealing $31 of candy from a Dollar General store under states habitual offender law, though his past convictions were mainly for theft and shoplifting convictions that likely fed a drug habit. Grimes rejected a plea deal from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office that would have given him four years as a double offender for stealing the candy. Although Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro publicly dismissed the notion that his office considered charging Grimes under the habitual offender enhancement, it was after the case drew national headlines and the enhancement law drew criticism. Grimes was ultimately sentenced to two years.

“Louisiana’s habitual offender law is abused, misused and ineffective,” says Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a member of Louisianans for Prison Alternatives. “People with repeated convictions can go to prison for years, even for life, for something as simple as stealing $14 or a box of candy bars. Stories like Bernard Noble’s – a man who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for possessing a small amount of marijuana – show us the failure of the current habitual offender law and our criminal justice system.”

Noble, who was paroled in 2018 after serving after serving eight years, was arrested in 2010 and sentenced in 2011 for possession of two joints, totaling about 2.8 grams of marijuana. All of his past convictions were non-violent drug charges.

“Just the threat of these serious penalties for low-level offenses creates an imbalance in our criminal justice system, coercing people to agree to disproportionate prison sentences or even plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid more incarceration,” Omojola said. “HB 355 would exclude nonviolent offenses from habitual offender sentencing enhancements. The money saved from these unnecessarily harsh sentences could then be reinvested into rehabilitative alternatives – such as substance abuse counseling and mental health treatment – that would address some of the root causes of crime and create a safer Louisiana.”

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