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Louisiana lawmakers advance legislation to charge all 17-year-old suspects as adults

Paul Braun
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry argues in support of legislation that would allow 17-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults as Leon Cannizzaro, head of the criminal division in Landry's office, looks on. April 26, 2022.

Louisiana state lawmakers advanced legislation Tuesday that would funnel all 17 year olds accused of crimes into the adult criminal justice system. Attorney General Jeff Landry and some state prosecutors are pushing for the change less than two years after “Raise the Age” legislation formally ended the practice in Louisiana. Landry argues that criminal justice reforms in Louisiana have led to the spike in violent crime across the country.

Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun discussed the legislation with WWNO Host Karl Lengel. Parts of their conversation that were cut from the radio version for time have been included in the transcript below.

Karl Lengel: Paul, what was the legislation considered in committee today, and what was the Attorney General’s argument for it? 

Paul Braun: The bill considered today was sponsored by Sen. Stewart Cathey (R-Monroe), but after a brief intro, Cathey handed over the presentation to Landry and a couple of state and local prosecutors.

The bill would undo recent “Raise the Age” legislation that ended the practice of juveniles, anyone under the age of 18, from being prosecuted as an adult.

That reform was a part of a larger criminal justice reform package passed in 2016. Supporters heralded the change as a step forward for criminal justice in Louisiana, a state that embraced prosecuting children as adults and handing down long sentences.

Landry argued that was a mistake and that teenagers are responsible for the spike in violent crime the state is experiencing. He says the “Raise the Age” legislation handcuffs prosecutors trying to get a handle on crime.

So Cathey’s bill, which Landry supports, would require that any 17 year old charged with a crime be charged as an adult, jailed like an adult before trial and imprisoned like an adult if they are ultimately convicted.

KL: Did changing the way juveniles are prosecuted have the effect Landry described? 

PB: In a word, no. State law already allows DAs to charge kids over the age of 15 who are accused of murder, rape or kidnapping with a minimal amount of paperwork. All they have to do is file an indictment, and the cases are automatically transferred to adult court.

And then there is a long list of other offenses that can land a kid in adult court. Those are focused on repeat offenders and include second and subsequent offenses for some non-violent drug crimes, even burglary.

So, Landry’s assertion that DAs have been hamstrung by the “Raise the Age” legislation is inaccurate, but in the middle of a crime wave, it's still compelling.

One specific example that came up in committee was a recent carjacking in New Orleans that resulted in a elderly woman tragically being dragged to death.

Jason Williams, the Orleans Parish District Attorney, has already told local media that he’s considering charging the 17 year old arrested for the crime as an adult. Williams, who ran as a criminal justice reformer, is perhaps the most progressive DA in the state, but he has charged several juveniles as adults since he came into office.

DAs still have the authority to prosecute kids as adults… they just have to do more paperwork. And right now DAs have the discretion to not charge a kid as an adult. Cathey’s bill would take that discretion away, and the criminal prosecution of any 17 year old would happen in adult court and stay on that person’s record far into adulthood.

As for the increase in violent crime, that’s happening everywhere, and crime data analysts say the increase is not correlated to the “Raise the Age” legislation.

KL: How does this fit into the larger debate over criminal justice reform at the State Capitol?

PB: This is part of a larger push to unravel the criminal justice reform legislation that was passed in 2016 with the explicit goal of bringing down incarceration rates here in Louisiana. At the time these bills were passed, Louisiana was the incarceration capital of the world, with more people per capita behind bars than any other state in the country and any other nation in the world.

That helped for a time. Oklahoma’s incarceration rate briefly surpassed Louisiana’s, but since then Louisiana has reclaimed its ignominious title.

After the big push for Criminal Justice Reinvestment back in 2016, there hasn’t been much enthusiasm for criminal justice reform among the legislature’s Republican majority.

There were attempts to roll back and delay the effective date of many of the bills that were passed in that package. For example, the “Raise the Age” bill didn’t take full effect until July 1, 2020.

But this year we have seen more overt discussion about undoing the justice reinvestment package.

Another Senate judiciary committee heard legislation a couple of weeks ago that would reinstitute mandatory minimum sentences and eliminate the early release provisions at the center of the state’s efforts to reduce prison populations for anyone who had ever been convicted of a violent crime or a sex crime.

Lawmakers there characterized criminal justice reinvestment as a failed experiment and, wrongly, blamed the rise in crime on people released from the program reoffending.

That legislation has already cleared the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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