Louisiana law defines a felony as any crime for which a defendant may be sentenced to death or imprisonment “at hard labor,” which means incarceration in state prison. All other crimes are considered misdemeanors in Louisiana. (La. Rev. Stat. § 14:2 (2020).)
Unlike most states—which assign felonies to different classes or categories, with the punishment for crimes determined by the category—Louisiana sets the penalty for each crime separately, by spelling it out in the statute covering that specific crime. The crime is considered a felony if the law says that a defendant convicted of that crime may be sentenced to incarceration in state prison (or “at hard labor”) for any period of time.
The punishment for some felonies may include a fine, either in addition to or instead of imprisonment. And if the victim suffered any financial loss, the court must also order the defendant to pay restitution as part of any sentence, unless it would create substantial financial hardship for the defendant or anyone who’s dependent on the defendant.
Even if a statute gives a range of potential prison time (such as five to 40 years for second-degree rape or two years to 20 years for carjacking), the judge must sentence a convicted defendant to a set amount of time (known as a “determinate sentence”) within that range. In Louisiana, however, prisoners are apply for parole after serving a portion of their determinate sentences, unless they were convicted for a crime that calls for a sentence of imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (La. Rev. Stat. §§ 14:42.1, 14:64.2, 15:574.4; La. Code Crim. Proc. art. 875.1, 879, 883.2 (2020).)
Many crimes in Louisiana have penalties that include imprisonment “with or without hard labor.” However, even if a convicted defendant receives a sentence for one of these crimes in parish jail (“without hard labor”) rather than state prison, that doesn’t mean that the conviction has been reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. As the Louisiana Supreme Court reasoned long ago, the test is “the punishment that might have been inflicted and not that actually imposed.” (State v. Brown, 171 So. 55 (La. Sup. Ct. 1936).)
Some examples of felonies that are punishable by time in either state prison or parish jail:
(La. Rev. Stat. §§ 14:34, 14:65, 14:65.1, 14:67.15 (2020).)
Louisiana law requires longer prison sentences for convicted felons who have previous felony convictions. Those sentences are increased even more in cases involving violent crimes, sex offenses, or multiple previous convictions.
In addition, some crimes—such as violating a domestic violence protective order—that are misdemeanors for the first offense become felonies when the defendant is convicted again for the same crime. (La. Rev. Stat. §§ 14:79, 15:529.1 (2020).)
A “statute of limitations” is basically a deadline for starting legal proceedings—filing criminal charges or a civil lawsuit. In criminal matters, the time period starts when the alleged crime took place. The “clock” may temporarily stop under certain limited circumstances. The criminal statute of limitations in Louisiana for most felonies is four or six years.
However, there’s no statute of limitations for crimes (like murder) that are punishable by death or life in prison without the possibility of parole, or for aggravated or forcible rape. Also, prosecutors can bring charges for sex offenses if DNA evidence identified the suspect after the statute of limitations expired. (La. Code Crim. Proc. art. 571, 572 (2020).)
A felony conviction has serious, long-term consequences. Even after you get out of prison, having a felony record can make it difficult to obtain a job or a professional license. It can also lead to harsher sentences if you are ever convicted of another crime. If you’re facing felony charges, it’s critical that you speak with a local criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system and protect your rights so that you can obtain the best outcome possible under the circumstances—which might entail a favorable plea bargain to reduce the charges or the sentence.
Look Out for Changes in the Law
State legislatures can change the laws almost any time. If you want to check the current version of any Louisiana statutes discussed in this article, you can find it through the Library of Congress's Guide to Law Online. Court decisions may also affect the interpretation of laws, which is another reason to talk to a lawyer if you’re worried about actual or potential criminal charges.