By Julia O’Donoghue
Celebrating one of the few major achievements of the 2017 regular legislative session, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday (June 15) signed bills making up what has been called a historic reform of Louisiana’s criminal justice laws. The 10 bills collectively are supposed to reduce the prison population by 10 percent in the state with the world’s highest incarceration rate, and save the public $78 million over the next 10 years.
Edwards could have signed the bills privately but decided to do so in a ceremony for more than 100 people who had lobbied for the changes. In 15 minutes of remarks before signing the bills, he emphasized several times that the overhaul was a bipartisan effort with backers from a wide range of political ideologies. Republicans, Democrats, conservative Christians and representatives of big business and left-leaning social justice organizations were gathered in the room.
“One thing that should give everyone in this state hope is that we brought together a broad, powerful bipartisan coalition of legislators to do something really big for the state of Louisiana, proving that it can still be done in 2017,” Edwards said.
It was a bright moment for Edwards during what has otherwise been a bleak time for bipartisanship in Louisiana. In the regular session that concluded Thursday, the Legislature failed to pass an annual budget for the first time in 17 years and did nothing to address a bigger budget crisis that looms in mid-2018. Conservative Republicans who control the House, moderate Republicans who control the Senate and the Democratic governor have failed to reach agreement on either annual or long-term fiscal issues.
And on Wednesday, Louisiana’s highest-ranking member of Congress, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, was shot and critically wounded during practice at an Alexandria, Va., baseball field by a gunman who had posted several angry rants about Republican politicians. Edwards, who postponed the bill-signing ceremony from Wednesday to Thursday because of the shooting, cited the attack as an example of the toxic partisan environment in the country.
Yet Edwards said the Legislature’s approval of the criminal justice package shows lawmakers are willing to take tough votes. Many of the changes — such as letting prisoners forego paying child support and shortening sentences for people already behind bars — were not politically easy votes.
But legislators stepped up to the plate and made them, he said. “All of the people in this room — not just the legislators — rejected the notion that we needed to play it safe,” Edwards said.
“That’s what leadership is about: We have to do the things that are hard. If you are only going to name highways and prestige license plates, let somebody else run for the office.”
The Smart on Crime coalition hailed the reform package. “Legislators have put Louisiana on the path to shedding its reputation as America’s prison capital while saving tax dollars and keeping families safe. The data is clear: Criminal justice reform is right for our state,” said Jay Lapeyre, Smart on Crime Louisiana Steering Committee member and chief executive officer of Laitram LLC.
The governor said groups with sometimes competing interests negotiated a compromise on the criminal justice package. At the beginning of the legislative session in April, the state’s district attorneys were opposed to the governor’s proposal. A month later, those two sides reached an agreement that the Legislature approved, and that left untouched most sentencing laws for violent criminals but softened sentencing for non-violent offenses such as drug possession and theft.
“There’s a lot of meetings that happen, especially around the legislative process. There’s a lot of talking going on and very little listening,” Edwards said, alluding to gridlock over the budget. “Had that been the case in this situation, we would not have been successful.”
As if to prove the governor’s point, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, left the bill-signing ceremony early to hustle back to a Senate Finance Committee meeting where a tentative budget compromise seemed to be unraveling. The committee eventually approved the budget proposal — already passed by the House — but only over the objections of a few senators who weren’t pleased with the solution.
Edwards, 1 1/2 years into a four-year term of office, hopes for more bipartisan work on criminal justice reform. Already he worries that lawmakers will try to raid some of the savings from the reform initiative, particularly when they face a $1 billion “fiscal cliff” that threatens hospitals and higher education come July 1, 2018.
Yet he remains optimistic that the progress thus far will continue. “At the end of my first term, we will not have the highest incarceration rate in the United States,” he said.
Republished from The Times-Picayune