Louisiana lawmakers approved a criminal justice system overhaul — one that advocates are calling historic — during the 2017 regular legislative session. We’ve broken down the package into three parts. This installment, the second, is about changes to sentencing laws.

Repeat offenders

For a defendant convicted of a third felony, judges will now have the authority to suspend or shorten sentences that are prescribed in the law. Judges previously were not allowed to shorten these sentences. The change will not apply in the case of violent crimes such as murder or kidnapping, certain types of fraud and child pornography.

First-time violent criminals

Judges will now be allowed to suspend or shorten sentences for people who are convicted for the first time of a violent crime that carries 10 years or less in prison. This change takes place Nov. 1. This will not apply to some child pornography crimes or domestic abuse crimes. And it does not affect sentencing for crimes punishable by more than 10 years in prison: murder, kidnapping and armed robbery, for example.

Chronic drunk drivers 

If the district attorney agrees, a person convicted for the fourth time of driving while intoxicated may be sentenced to drug and alcohol treatment instead of prison. This option would be open only to people who were not offered treatment as an alternative in their previous DWI cases. This change takes place Nov. 1.

Multiple-felony offenders

If the district attorney agrees, people with three or four felony convictions may be sentenced to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment or another alternative such as drug court, instead of prison. They could, however, be kept on probation for eight years — longer than usual. Currently, there is no option other than prison for people with that many felony convictions. This change takes place Nov. 1.

Mandatory minimums curtailed 

Beginning Aug. 1, mandatory minimum prison terms will be eliminated for several crimes such as arson, communicating false information about arson, home invasion, theft and possession of two grams or less of many illegal drugs. And there will no longer be mandatory prison for a third felony prostitution conviction.

But some mandatories come with parole

In some cases, a minimum sentence will still be imposed, but the convict would be newly eligible for parole. For example, burglary would continue to carry a mandatory minimum sentence of a year in prison, but people convicted of it will eligible for parole during that year; currently, they are not. This change takes place Aug. 1.

Maximums lowered 

The maximum prison sentence has been lowered for several non-violent offenses, including stealing from a retail business, money laundering, being a felon with a gun and using a car without the owner’s permission. Also lowered is the maximum sentence for possession of marijuana, cocaine and a number of other drugs. These changes will take place Aug. 1.

Opiods targeted

Several parts of the criminal justice package reduce prison sentences for drug possession convictions. But beginning Aug. 1, there is a new mandatory minimum, one year, for illegally possessing several prescription medications, especially opioids.

Misdemeanor/felony threshold

The threshold between a misdemeanor and a felony will rise to $1,000 for some crimes: theft, criminal damage to property and issuing a worthless check. Until the change takes effect Aug. 1, the theft threshold remains $700 worth of stolen property; for criminal damage and for worthless checks, it’s $500 in vandalism or check value.

Habitual offenders

Under current law, prosecutors may use Louisiana’s habitual offender statute to obtain significantly longer prison sentences for people with prior felony convictions. But that authority will limited beginning Nov. 1:

  • New convictions for drug and non-violent offenses will not subject a defendant with prior convictions to life in prison
  • Habitual offenders will face a shorter mandatory minimum sentence
  • The length of time that an old felony conviction could be used to activate the habitual offender statute for a new crime would be shortened. Currently, the habitual offender law may be used on a new offense within 10 years of the end of the maximum possible sentence for the previous offense — even the person didn’t receive that maximum sentence. Moving forward, it may be used within only five years of the end of the individual’s actual sentence, parole and probation for non-violent crimes, and within 10 years of the end the individual’s sentence, parole and probation period for violent crimes.

The changes to the habitual offender law will not affect people who are already in prison.

This article originally appeared in The Times-Picayune.

Julia O'Donoghue

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Julia O'Donoghue is one of two state politics reporters based in Baton Rouge for The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. She grew up in another government town, Washington D.C., and is conducting research on how to be a rabid ice hockey fan while living the South.


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