Riegel: Revisiting Louisiana criminal justice reform

One of the brighter moments in the state’s recent history was the passage in 2017 of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which sought to reduce the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate while saving money that could be reinvested in reentry and workforce training programs.

The measure was significant not only because of what it sought to accomplish but because of how it came about. For more than a year, a conservative-led group called Smart on Crime Louisiana studied the issue, gathering data not only on Louisiana’s own prison population and costs but on what has—and hasn’t—worked in other states that have sought to tackle the problem.

They worked with a state-appointed task force, headed by veteran Republican lawmaker Danny Martiny—holding hearings and educational forums. They gathered input and worked with skeptical sheriffs and district attorneys, gradually winning over a majority and securing their support for the legislative package.

At the helm of this impressive effort was the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and a couple of key business leaders from New Orleans, chief among them, Laitram CEO Jay Lapeyre.

In other words, criminal justice reform was the product of study, deliberation, dialogue and compromise. Its passage was a bright moment for the state because the process that produced it was a shining example of how our democratic system is supposed to work.

Just a little more than a year later, however, we’re seeing the darker side of democracy. Though criminal justice reform is showing signs of success on several fronts, it has become a political football. And those who would rather sink the state than give Gov. John Bel Edwards credit for anything good are trying to roll back the reforms that just 15 months ago were supported by some of the most conservative voices—not only in Louisiana, but in the
entire country.

Of late, Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, both Republicans mulling a run against Edwards in 2019, have taken to waging a war on criminal justice reform. They cite a handful of misleading statistics to suggest the program is a failure and that Edwards—a political moderate if ever there was one—is a soft-on-crime, liberal Democrat endangering lives and livelihoods.

They’ve been helped in their efforts by at least one district attorney, the 23rd Judicial District’s Ricky Babin, who now heads the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association and has been critical of the program.

“I’ve seen no evidence this program makes our streets safer,” Babin told WBRZ-TV, playing into the hands of the Landry-Kennedy duo, neither of whom lets facts stand in the way of a compelling sound bite delivered with some variant of hayseed twang.

While the numbers such critics have cited have been challenged, their argument has gained traction because two murders committed earlier this summer have been linked to suspects that should have been behind bars but for criminal justice reform.

While this makes for sexy headlines, what has not been explained is that one of those suspects, Paul Jackson, would have been out of jail even without criminal justice reform. The DA’s office in Ouachita Parish had pled him down to lesser charges on his original arrest that, even under the pre-reform rules, would have made him eligible for parole in April. The murder occurred in June.

The suspect in the other oft-cited case, Richard McClendon, has an extensive prior arrest record and several prior suspended sentences. If the Bossier Parish district attorney had prosecuted him on the crimes for which he was originally arrested, rather than accepting his plea on lesser charges, he would not have been eligible for release under the old rules or new.

But no one is questioning the district attorneys who accept the plea deals that make early release possible. Nor are the conservative organizations and business groups that championed criminal justice reforms just 15 months ago coming to its defense.

Where is Tony Perkins, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, who said at a forum here in April 2017 that, “Criminal justice reform is a fundamentally conservative idea—keeping the cost of government in check while helping rehabilitated inmates reenter society so they’re not permanently dependent on taxpayer dollars.”

Where is LABI President and CEO Stephen Waguespack, who wrote in a May 2017 LABI President’s message that, “This package enjoys broad support from business groups like the one I am proud to represent … Reform is definitely needed.”

Why are they not touting that the reforms are beginning to work? According to statistics from the governor’s office, 19% of those released under the program during its first year have been rearrested, compared to the national average of 44%. (Kennedy has incorrectly stated the first-year rearrest rate is 22%). The recidivism rate, which measures those who are not only rearrested but convicted of a crime, is also down to 6%, compared to its pre-reform average of 15%. Cost savings, meanwhile, total some $12 million for the first year.

Does this mean criminal justice reform has been a slam dunk? No. Does this mean lawmakers do not need to tweak certain aspects of the program? No.

But if we’re talking about making changes to state law maybe we should also look at all the plea deals made by district attorneys. And maybe we should go back and look at what all the pro-business and conservative groups, who are now conspicuously silent, were saying about why this program was so important. Those reasons haven’t changed just because the political climate has become more polluted.

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