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Criminal justice overhaul to relieve overcrowded prisons in Louisiana

Like many in Louisiana, you may have watched with interest as lawmakers tackled the crushing issues of overcrowding and dwindling resources in the state's prison system. In unprecedented legislative sessions, lawmakers worked and compromised on various aspects of criminal justice reform to overhaul the broken system.

By breaking the issues into smaller bills, legislators have managed to pass sweeping changes, some of which went into effect in August, and others that will take place on Nov. 1. Among those changes are sentencing requirements. If you are facing charges for drug offenses or other non-violent crimes, these reforms concerning mandatory sentencing may allow you to breathe a sigh of relief.

Changes on the horizon

Harsh sentences for non-violent crimes contribute to the overcrowded conditions in state prisons and local jails and do not address the core issues. For example, if your recent arrest was a fourth offense DUI, you would face felony charges and potentially years in prison.

The new law, which will take effect Nov. 1, allows a judge to sentence you to treatment for drugs and alcohol instead of sending you to prison. This option only applies if the court did not order you to such sentencing alternatives for any of your previous convictions.

Other important changes in sentencing include the following:

  • Depending on whether the district attorney agrees, if convicted of three or four felonies, you may receive a sentence for mental health treatment instead of mandatory prison terms.
  • Judges will have the power to suspend mandatory sentences for repeat offenders of non-violent crimes.
  • Judges sentencing first-time offenders of violent crimes will have the authority to shorten mandatory sentences of 10 years or less, except in cases of child pornography or domestic violence.
  • Many sentences that currently do not provide a parole option will change to include that eligibility.

In addition to these changes, lawmakers reduced the maximum prison sentences if a person is convicted of specific non-violent crimes, such as possessing marijuana. In other cases, minimum jail time now in place for certain crimes -- like arson, home invasion and possessing less than 2 grams of illegal drugs -- will no longer be mandatory. You may also receive parole for offenses that currently carry no option for parole, such as burglary.

How you benefit from recent reforms

Overall, if the court deems you a habitual offender or if it convicts you of a nonviolent crime, in many cases, you can expect your prison sentence to be shorter than what you might have received in the past, if you go to jail at all. On the other hand, in response to the growing opioid crisis, lawmakers added a new mandatory minimum for illegal possession of certain prescriptions.

Nevertheless, a conviction for any crime -- whether the sentence is prison or probation -- will certainly have a detrimental effect on your life. Seeking legal guidance at the earliest possible moment is the best way to obtain experienced advocacy and assistance.

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