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Analysis: More fodder for the criminal justice reform debate

July 15, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Look at pictures of the carnage on the parade route that February night in New Orleans and it might be difficult to believe that a crime of violence had not been committed.

Neilson Rizzuto had drunkenly plowed into a crowd of Carnival revelers that evening in 2017, injuring 32 of them. He pleaded guilty in October to 11 counts of vehicular negligent injury.

That vehicular negligent injury is not listed as a “crime of violence” in the state criminal code is one of the reasons Rizzuto is due to walk free this month after serving roughly 17 months behind bars.

Look for his case to bring a new wrinkle to arguments over last year’s criminal justice reform law, which bolsters chances for early release from prison sentences in many instances.

According to prosecutors and the state corrections department, Act 280 of the 2017 session provides that those convicted of first-offense felonies — ones not listed as violent crimes — earn what is essentially a good-behavior release after serving about a third of their sentences.

Backers say its better for those convicted, enabling them a real shot at a new life. It’s also part of a criminal justice reform package that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Office says the saved Louisiana more than $12 million in the fiscal year that recently ended.

Watch for opponents of the law to pounce on every instance of a prisoner released early who gets arrested anew; and for backers to point to success stories of those who get a second chance.

Rizzuto’s case may figure in the arguments.

There also are echoes in the Rizzuto case of emotional debates that took place more than a decade ago at the Legislature over how best to sentence drunk drivers. A 2001 law did away with much of the discretion judges had in DWI cases, requiring them to suspend large chunks of jail time in favor of treatment for substance abuse.

Four years later, opponents of that approach won passage of a bill returning judges’ discretion to impose sentences of up to five years for third-offense DWI and 30 years for a fourth offense. Suspended sentences with treatment requirements remain an option, but backers of the 2001 law still lamented that judges would be too quick to order jail time for people with serious problems who weren’t criminals.

Rizzuto’s crime, was, of course, more serious than the theoretical drunk driving cases debated by lawmakers. He not only drove drunk, he hurt people, some seriously.

So, when someone drinks heavily and drives, is that person a budding criminal or someone who needs help? Or both? How does his having seriously injured people alter the calculation? What if he kills someone?

And what’s a fitting sentence? Would a long sentence be a deterrent in a case involving alcohol? Does one size fit all? How does the victims’ pain and suffering figure into it?

Some victims said Rizzuto’s sentence was a miscarriage of justice.

“Wasn’t he sentenced to five years, and now he’s out?” victim Faye Bertrand said during an interview with WDSU television. “He hurt 30 people. I’m still suffering.”

Rizzuto’s lawyer, Nanak Rai, told reporters the sentence was fair.

State District Judge Ben Willard set the stage for this month’s release, ordering that he serve each five-year sentence for his 11 felony counts concurrently and suspending one year of the sentence. Rizzuto, who never made bail after his arrest, also got credit for time served.

Willard acknowledged the victims’ pain, but also noted Rizzuto’s plea of guilty as charged and his otherwise clean criminal record.

Rizzuto’s sentence won’t be complete when he is freed. He will be on probation and under orders to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

He also faces civil court lawsuits.

So, his obligations and ordeals aren’t over any more than the arguments over what constitutes justice.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill is a reporter for The Associated Press in New Orleans.

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