BATON ROUGE — Proponents of criminal justice reform are confident the Louisiana Legislature will pass a series of bills this spring that the governor maintains would reduce the state’s prison population by 13 percent and save taxpayers $305 million over the next 10 years.
Even with the state’s District Attorneys Association issuing a lengthy and sharp rebuttal to most of the ideas, and an atmosphere of divisiveness in the Capitol, several lawmakers believe this could be the year the state sheds its title as prison capital of the U.S., which in turn makes it the prison capital of the world.
Some believe passing criminal justice reforms will be considerably easier than finding more than a billion dollars in tax increases and spending cuts, which is the main focus of the 60-day session.
“I think we can move,” on criminal justice legislation, said House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Gene Reynolds. “You can’t make everyone happy, but you’ve got to solve the problem.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tax plan has been subjected to increasingly contentious philosophical debates over the government’s size and the tax burden on individuals and business, as well as policy debates over how to fill a $1.3 billion looming budget gap. But criminal justice reform appears to have a broad base of support: conservative business groups and criminal justice advocates.
Democrats and Republicans have coalesced around the general idea since last year, aiming for the 2017 legislative session to make a strong push. Several top Republicans, including Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, are sponsoring pieces of legislation in the governor’s criminal justice agenda.
“We've taken away so much of the discretion from the branch that is in charge of sentencing, which is called the judiciary,” said State Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, a lawyer. “You elect judges because you hope they have wisdom and discretion. When we put in minimum sentences and we put in 'you shall serve' ... that gives no wiggle room for judges.”
A task force dedicated to studying the state’s justice system concluded the way Louisiana incarcerates people is broken. The state has similar rates of nonviolent crime — property, drug and other offense — as states like South Carolina and Florida, for instance, but imprisons those people at twice the rate of South Carolina and at three times the rate of Florida.
Nearly 70 percent of Louisiana’s prisoners in 2015 had never committed a violent crime; 86 percent were incarcerated for primarily a nonviolent offense. One in three return to prison within three years.
The task force issued a series of recommendations, most of which have been converted into legislation. Bills currently filed would implement a felony class system, expand alternatives to incarceration and provide parole eligibility to certain offenders, among a host of other things.
Louisiana sheriffs, who have an outsize stake in the prison population, have been unusually quiet about the ideas; they appear to have two opposing forces surrounding criminal justice reform pulling them. On the one hand, Edwards, whose brother is the Tangipahoa sheriff, has been close to law enforcement since his unlikely campaign for governor, when the state association endorsed him.
On the other, sheriffs in the state benefit from a lucrative incarceration industry. Much like private prison companies, sheriffs are paid a per diem for each state prisoner they house in their parish jails, money that is added to their budget.
Some task force recommendations would lower the per diem and reduce the amount of wages sheriffs can take from inmates in work programs.
Calls and emails to roughly a dozen sheriffs who house state prisoners in their local jails were not returned for this story, and top LSA staff did not return calls. The association has yet to state its public position on the ideas.
Regardless of the position of law enforcement, the support of the business community is seen as the biggest asset for advocates for reform. Largely citing a lack of eligible workers, business groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry endorsed the push early, and provide an essential counterweight to conservatives who have long been pressured by the ‘tough on crime’ lobby.