La. task force on felony 'class system' aims to make sentences more consistent, transparent

As it stands, former U.S. attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. says the same conduct can result in vastly different sentences or release eligibility under different statutes

By John Simerman
The Advocate

BATON ROUGE, La. — A familiar face will head the table on Friday when a new state task force convenes in Baton Rouge to begin work on creating a "felony class system," with the goal of making prison sentences and releases more consistent and transparent across the state's 600-plus felony statutes.

Kenneth Polite Jr., the former U.S. attorney in New Orleans, confirmed Monday that he has been named by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson as her delegate to the task force. He will be the acting chairman at the initial meeting.

The Legislature formed the body this year as part of a compromise package of reforms aimed at ending the state's standing as the country's incarceration leader.

But even before the task force begins its work, one key player is taking a jaundiced view of the outcome.

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said his group's three delegates to the 12-member body will seek to torpedo any proposal that smells of an attempt to "create leniency in the sentencing provisions without having to go statute by statute."

That's what the state's powerful district attorneys thought about an earlier proposal for a felony class system that was offered in March by the state Justice Reinvestment Task Force.

That proposed system, once considered a cornerstone of the prison reform package, would have created uniform sentencing ranges and release eligibility rules for most of the state's crimes by placing each of them into one of a half-dozen classes.

It was billed as a way to simplify a system that can leave defendants, prosecutors and judges uncertain about the actual amount of time a convict might serve for a given crime.

But the district attorneys balked, and Gov. John Bel Edwards and prison reform advocates agreed to create a task force to study the issue instead.

"We're willing to have an open mind and look at what they can develop," Adams said, "but at this time, mark us skeptical."

The task force is slated to make recommendations to the Legislature before the 2018 session. The first meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday in the Capitol.

"I'm obviously honored to be (Johnson's) designee," Polite said. "I think she recognizes my experience from the federal system, which is in some ways a model for what we're going to try to do here in Louisiana."

Polite resigned in March as head of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, shortly before President Trump summarily dismissed dozens of Barack Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys across the country. He was hired in April to head up Entergy's legal and ethics department.

Polite said he was hopeful that, as in other states that have adopted the class-system model, the task force will come up with a more straightforward system of sentences than now exists.

As it stands, he said, the same conduct can result in vastly different sentences or release eligibility under different statutes.

"There's not just a lack of clarity on what the sentences are," he said, "but also which ones can be suspended and how long, the amount of probation that's available, 'good-time' credit."

The result of a new class system might be lower sentences for some crimes, and perhaps an effect on the state's nation-leading incarceration rate, though Polite said that's not the aim.

"It's a potential byproduct, but that's not the focus of this task force," he said. "Our goal is to help the system."


©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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