(KPLC) - By Paul Braun
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE - Prosecutors and defense attorneys on a state task force are at odds over the panel's recommendations of a felony class system but agree that they need to make the proposals work.
The Felony Class System Task Force voted last week to recommend a class structure that would place the more than 660 criminal offenses into seven categories with set sentencing ranges. The final task force report has not been released.
The main disagreement centers around so-called "back-end" sentencing measures used to calculate possible early release from prison.
The amount of time an offender spends in prison is subject to two statutory sentencing considerations, "front-end" and the "back-end."
Under the current system, front-end sentencing guidelines are outlined in the individual statutes of the criminal code. There are nearly 100 different sentencing ranges for the more than 660 crimes.
"Back-end" measures are calculations made by the state Department of Corrections to determine eligibility for early release and parole, a topic that was hotly contested by the members of the task force but was not addressed in detail in its recommendation.
Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the task force's recommendations failed to account for back-end measures.
Adams said the association has not issued a formal response to the recommendations. But his comments echoed concerns voiced by the three district attorneys his organization on the task force.
Adams said the classes were overly broad and applied the same sentencing guidelines to crimes that were dissimilar.
"Explain to me why if you put a sex crime and a property crime and a violent crime all in the same category why it would make sense that the back-end mechanisms for those disparate kinds of crimes would be anywhere near similar," Adams said.
"The task force was comprised in such a manner that it was going to have a proposal, they felt compelled to have a proposal, and now they have one," Adams said. "They're going to have a tall hill to climb to explain why that proposal would improve the criminal justice system."
Jay Dixon, the state public defender and a member of the task force, said the recommendation represents a "good first step." But he voiced frustration at the group's failure to reach a consensus.
"Some of the concerns the district attorneys raised have merit, but I think a lot of that can be addressed with continued work," Dixon said. "But I think we have to make the first step."
He added that the structure of the class system would simplify efforts to change back-end measures, so offenders could have a clearer picture of how long they would spend behind bars for specific crimes. Legislators would be able to easily stipulate that eligibility for early release provisions that applied across a class would not be given to individuals convicted of violent crimes or sex crimes, he said.
Representative Joseph Marino, I-Gretna, and a member of the task force, said he plans to introduce legislation to further study a felony class system to answer some of the questions posed by the prosecutors on the task force.
Marino said he was frustrated with the limited scope of the task force and the two first meetings that were spent debating the prosecutors on whether a class system was necessary at all.
"I want to work with the district attorneys," Marino said. "I don't want them out of the process. I want them to have input and help us."
Marino cited the statute for armed robbery, which carries a maximum sentence of 99 years, as an example of an outlier in the state's criminal code that would be corrected with a class system.
"That kind of thinking is back toward what got us into being the incarceration capital," Marino said. "You don't even think about what does it mean when somebody gets 99 years. You don't even think about the logistics of how much money it actually costs, and the real benefit to society of that sentence."
Dixon, the public defender, said the class structure outlined by the task force would allow for necessary reforms to back-end measures. But he said delays to further study the issue could kill the reform.
"My concern is that if you don't go forward with it, it's never going to happen," Dixon said. "It is just going to be studied to death until finally we have nothing."