Louisiana moves to cut prison time

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - NATION & WORLD - By Tyler Bridges Spe­cial to TheWash­ing­ton Post

AN­GOLA, La. —When he was young and strong, Clyde Gid­dens fought with a man and stabbed him to death, lead­ing to a life sen­tence for mur­der. Fifty­five years later, Gid­dens, 76, uses a wheel­chair and a hospi­tal bed at the Louisiana State Pen­i­ten­tiary at An­gola, af­ter break­ing a hip and suf­fer­ing a stroke.

He hoped a pro­posal to re­lease old and sick vi­o­lent of­fend­ers in Louisiana would al­low him to live with his niece in Shreve­port, La.

“I’m no longer a dan­ger,” Gid­dens said last month at An­gola, his voice barely above a whis­per.

But in a deal an­nounced Tues­day, Demo­cratic Gov. John Bel Ed­wards agreed to drop the pro­posal to of­fer early pa­role to geri­atric pris­on­ers in ex­change for state district at­tor­neys’ sup­port for eas­ing penal­ties for non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers — changes that aim to re­duce Louisiana’s prison pop­u­la­tion by 10 per­cent in a decade.

It’s a land­mark agree­ment for Louisiana, which locks up res­i­dents at a rate twice the na­tional av­er­age, mak­ing it the coun­try’s big­gest jailer per capita. An un­usual coali­tion of busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, re­li­gious groups and lib­eral ac­tivists has been work­ing to end the state’s ig­no­min­ious dis­tinc­tion with a pack­age of bills that would shorten some prison sen­tences, pre­vent cer­tain non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers from go­ing to prison and ex­pand el­i­gi­bil­ity for pa­role.

The changes would come asU.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions moves fed­eral sen­tenc­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, to­ward stricter penal­ties. Last week, he di­rected fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors to im­pose charges that carry the most se­vere sen­tences, a re­ver­sal of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prac­tice.

“We are re­turn­ing to the en­force­ment of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and sim­ple,” Ses­sions said Fri­day. “If you are a drug traf­ficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be will­fully blind to your mis­con­duct.”

In Louisiana, district at­tor­neys and sher­iffs op­posed early re­lease for old con­victed mur­der­ers and rapists.

“They’re go­ing to risk pub­lic safety andwe­would go back on the prom­ises to vic­tims that were raped and the fam­i­lies of those who were killed,” said Bo Duhé, a district at­tor­ney in the state, be­fore the deal with­Ed­wardswas reached.

Ed­wards ar­gued that the sen­tenc­ing changes would make Louisiana safer by sav­ing money that the leg­is­lation shifts to pro­grams that help pre­pare in­mates to re-en­ter so­ci­ety and stay out of trou­ble.

Other pro­po­nents point to stud­ies show­ing that for­mer in­mates be­come less likely to com­mit crimes as they age, a phe­nom­e­non they call “crim­i­nal menopause.”

But Tues­day’s deal means Louisiana will re­main one of two states that keep felons con­victed of sec­ond-de­gree mur­der be­hind bars for life. It is likely that the state leg­is­la­ture will ap­prove the bills re­lated to non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers be­fore its reg­u­lar ses­sion ends June 8.

The state Se­nate on Tues­day eas­ily ap­proved ma­jor com­po­nents of the deal reached with law en­force­ment of­fi­cials.

“This com­pro­mise pack­age con­tains smart, ag­gres­sive re­forms that will cer­tainly im­prove pub­lic safety,” Ed­wards told re­porters Tues­day.

The ef­fort is part of a na­tional cam­paign to re­duce state prison pop­u­la­tions, which soared af­ter decades of “tough on crime” tac­tics.

More than 30 states have adopted some form of “smart on crime” poli­cies aime­dat re­duc­ing thenum­ber of peo­ple be­hind bars, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts.

AN­NIE FLANA­GAN/FOR THEWASH­ING­TON POST

“We grew old to­gether,” Clyde Gid­dens, 76, said of health care or­derly, Don­ald Mur­ray, 63, at the nurs­ing unit of the Louisiana State Pen­i­ten­tiary. Mur­ray is one of the few se­lect in­mates who take care of other aging in­mates at the prison.

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