Are People Living in Addiction ‘Habitual Offenders’?

On November 1, Louisiana’s habitual offender law will officially change. Currently, offenders who go before

On November 1, Louisiana’s habitual offender law will officially change. Currently, offenders who go before a judge with a minimal offense but a long history of such offenses can face exceptionally long prison sentences. However, the new change will significantly shorten those sentences and stop nonviolent offenders from facing up to 30 years for their respective crimes.

Though the change will not impact the sentences of those who are currently serving time under the old habitual offender law, it will change the criteria with which new offenders are evaluated.

Terrebonne Parish First Assistant District Attorney Jason Dagate says: “Habitual offender bills are filed on a case-by-case basis based on the crime, the effect of that crime and the criminal. It’s used as an enhancement tool of the sentence. It’s not a separate crime in itself. It strictly deals with the amount of time somebody serves in jail based on their criminal record.”

Louisiana currently holds the number one spot in the nation when it comes to the number of people who are incarcerated. In no other state are there as many people behind lock and key, and it is an issue that is bankrupting the state’s budget.

Not only is it a fiscal issue, it is a social justice issue as well. A study done by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013 found that 79 percent of the more than 3,200 prisoners who are serving life without parole will die in prison as a result of committing nonviolent crimes.

Peter Scharf is a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health and Justice. He says: “The habitual offender process is a great way to bankrupt the state. The fiscal impact of it is enormous. Think of a young kid who’s 25 years old and gets a 30-year sentence. The average cost of a prison sentence in Louisiana is roughly $20,000 per year. That’s $600,000 that could have paid for a special education teacher for 20 years. Judges get tired of these guys, so they sock them with the habitual offender bill.”

Others say that the law plays an important role in keeping violent offenders off the street and protecting the public.

Lafourche Parish First Assistant District Attorney Kristine Russell says: “Here in Lafourche we don’t use it often, but when we do, we take a look at rap sheets and look at what type of crime the individual committed. Have they been law-abiding citizens or do they just re-offend? We don’t take it lightly. It’s a tool that we use to protect society.”

Going forward, nonviolent offenders will not face life in prison under the new habitual offender law, and those with multiple offenses will not be crushed under 30 years of prison time.

The changes are simple, according to Representative Tanner Magee. Formerly a criminal defense attorney himself, he saw in the course of his job how the habitual offender law worked – for the positive and the negative.

He says: “The habitual offender law is a powerful tool for the DA’s office to put away truly bad people, but under the old law it was really capturing a lot of people who were not violent criminals who are more likely to be drug addicts. It was forcing them to plea in situations where they weren’t necessarily guilty of their crimes.

“All we did with the new law was clarify those crimes which are the ones we really want to use the habitual offender law and those crimes that we would like to see someone get a second chance. Those would include your drug possession guys and nonviolent offenders. The justice system isn’t built for them taking 60 years for just being a drug addict.”

The hope is that these changes will improve conditions in prisons and help them to spend more money providing inmates with treatment for addiction and mental health issues, and education to acquire the skills needed to have a new, healthy life upon release. It is also hoped that these changes will infuse the state budget with money for addiction treatment programs. Those living with addiction will not benefit from incarceration. Treatment is needed, and with it, so-called “offenders” motivated by an ongoing and untreated addiction will gain the ability to put substance use and abuse in the past, and learn new coping mechanisms and social structures to support a healthy life in recovery.

What Do You Think?

Is the change to the habitual offender law needed? Or, do you think it was a valuable tool that took people off the street who were unwilling or unable to be rehabilitated?

Since joining the Townsend content team, Shlomo has become a thought leader in the addiction field. He is a Seinfeld junkie, a recovering Twitter fanatic, and a sports expert. He enjoys milk shakes and beautiful views from rooftops.