WASHINGTON — Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy threw jabs at his home state's criminal justice overhaul while turning his thumb down at a proposed bipartisan rewrite of federal sentencing laws on Thursday.
Kennedy, a Republican, called the package of criminal-justice changes passed in 2017 by the Louisiana Legislature "an unqualified disaster" and, despite bipartisan support for the overhaul in the GOP-controlled state Legislature, laid the blame squarely on Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat and frequent Kennedy foil.
The senator's comments during a Thursday morning Senate Judiciary Committee hearing prompted sharp criticism from Edwards, who accused Kennedy of deliberately misleading his colleagues. The governor wrote a letter to the committee apologizing for Kennedy's "untruthful comments."
The state's overhaul, designed to cut the state's highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate by reducing prison terms for non-violent offenders, began to take effect in August. The changes led to more than 2,000 prisoners being released earlier than originally calculated on Nov. 1.
Kennedy contended at the committee hearing that the governor had pushed the criminal-justice package "without consultation" with the state's sheriffs and district attorneys, an assertion Edwards blasted as untrue.
Prosecutors and sheriffs were both represented on the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force — which drafted the bills — and the state's district attorneys negotiated a broad compromise on the package with the Governor's Office which narrowed its scope and helped usher it through to passage.
Law enforcement leaders have expressed concerns about a potentially bumpy rollout of the changes, noting that the Louisiana Department of Corrections hadn't received significant extra funding to hire extra probation and parole officers.
But the state's prosecutors endorsed the package during the 2017 legislative session.
"Though we didn't get everything that we wanted, but were satisfied enough to support the passage of the bills," Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said Thursday. "While the new laws may need some adjustments, we believe that many of the reforms were appropriate and, in fact, were needed."
Louisiana Sheriff's Association Executive Director Michael Ranatza declined to comment directly on Kennedy's remarks. However, Ranatza noted that a sheriff will be sitting on an oversight committee tasked with studying and evaluating the reforms and that his members are trying to remain "objective" in their assessment.
The oversight committee is scheduled to meet for the first time Friday.
"How do you start off condemning something before we've received the report?" Ranatza said.
"We are already seeing the positive results and I know we will continue to see them going forward," Edwards wrote in his letter. "Moreover, the Louisiana reforms follow efforts in other southern, conservative states that saw simultaneous drops in their crime and imprisonment rates following enacting similar reforms."
Kennedy told The Advocate later Thursday that Edwards "brow-beat" state lawmakers into passing the reforms and that prosecutors and law enforcement officials were given only token input. Kennedy also asserted that law enforcement officials privately criticize the package even if they've expressed public support.
"Gov. Edwards believes the liberal Democratic dogma — he believes in letting illegal immigrants in and letting dangerous criminals out," Kennedy said in the interview. "He can pretty it up all he wants to and pretend he consulted with people — but that’s all this is. I’m going to use all my power not to allow the fiasco the governor started in Louisiana to bleed over into the United States of America."
Louisiana's overhaul received stiff criticism from some Republican lawmakers and law-and-order groups. But a number of conservative and business groups signed onto the effort, which came on the heels of similar overhauls in other Southern states, including Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina.
The changes largely targeted the amount of time Louisianans convicted of property and drug crimes spend in the state's sprawling prison system. By speeding up releases and cutting the length of new sentences for those offenses, Pew Charitable Trust analysts projected the state's prison population will decline by about 10 percent and the state could save roughly $262 million over the next decade.
Roughly $180 million of that savings is supposed to be put toward efforts to cut down on the rate that former prisoners commit new crimes.
Louisiana Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc called Kennedy's criticism "unfair" and said the senator "is clearly uninformed about this national bipartisan issue."
LeBlanc noted the task force which recommended the state's reforms studied the issue for two years and counted judges, a district attorney and a sheriff among its members.
"These meetings were open to the public and Sen. Kennedy never attended a single meeting to share his opinion," LeBlanc said. "Louisiana could no longer afford to sit back and watch crime rise, and continue to be the incarceration capital of the world. What we have done in the past was not working."
Edwards, who's been the target of frequent attacks by Kennedy since the former state treasurer arrived in Washington, accused Kennedy of grandstanding and bending the truth in his Thursday comments.
"As is typically the case with (Kennedy's) criticisms, they are rooted in political posturing and can rarely be substantiated," Edwards wrote the committee. "In Louisiana, our coalition worked too hard to have its efforts undermined in this manner."
For his part, Kennedy ripped the Department of Corrections, pointing to several well-publicized scandals involving wardens and deputy wardens at state prisons, as well as an ongoing FBI investigation into former Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson's leadership of that agency, which also falls under LeBlanc.
"If the governor wants to spend his time productively, rather than writing letters, I would very respectfully suggest to him that he clean up his Department of Corrections," Kennedy said.
The federal bill Kennedy opposed advanced out of the committee on a bipartisan vote, 16 to 5. It would give federal judges more leeway in sentencing those convicted of federal drug offenses — and allow just over 3,000 people currently serving time in federal prison for those crimes to ask a judge to shorten their terms.
The effort, led by Republican Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly attacked it earlier this week.
Grassley took personal offense at the opposition from Sessions, a former U.S. senator from Alabama. If Sessions wanted input in the bill, Grassley said Thursday, he should've remained in the U.S. Senate.
Grassley also noted he's defended Sessions — a controversial pick to lead the U.S. Justice Department by President Donald Trump — on a number of occasions.
"This is not something you should do to a friend," Grassley said Thursday.