‘Historic’ changes for Louisiana food stamp program as Gov. John Bel Edwards inks executive order _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK – On his 100th day in office, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards fields questions from callers during his first "Ask the Governor" radio show with Jim Engster at Louisiana Radio Network in Baton Rouge.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards defended a northwest Louisiana sheriff who has come under fire for comments he made about work performed by inmates in a now viral video.

"I don't think the sheriff meant it quite the way it came out based on the meeting I had with him this morning," Edwards said of Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator during the governor's monthly call-in radio show Wednesday.

Prator, who has been elected sheriff for nearly two decades, has faced national criticism over his comments about the looming release of about 1,400 inmates next month, the result of change made to the state's criminal justice laws this year.

“In addition to the bad ones — and I call these bad — in addition to them, they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that, where we save money,” Prator said in a widely-circulated video from a news conference. “Well, they’re going to let them out.”

Critics have compared his remarks about keeping people behind bars for cheap labor to slavery.

Edwards didn't expound on what he believes Prator's intention was, but he said that the Legislature's overhaul of crime statutes was intended to reintroduce non-violent offenders back into society. Louisiana has the nation's highest per capita incarceration rate.

"They've proven themselves trustworthy and they have a good work ethic," Edwards said, noting that inmates affected cannot be violent or sex offenders.

Edwards also noted that the effort was undertaken with bi-partisan support and modeled after other "Southern, conservative" states.

"We see the impact that they've had elsewhere," he said.

Edwards also fielded calls about a controversial ban on burning of the American flag in Iberville Parish, his unsuccessful push for a minimum wage hike in Louisiana and the state's efforts to establish a legal medical marijuana structure, among other topics.

Edwards, a lawyer who is an Army veteran, said he doesn't agree with flag burning, but he thinks the ordinance doesn't jibe with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that has established a constitutional protection for the act under the First Amendment.

"I value the flag, I believe in patriotism," he said. "I think that there are better ways to call attention to one's self than burning the flag."

Edwards, a Democrat who campaigned on supporting a minimum wage hike, has called for legislation that would over two years establish a $8.50 an hour minimum wage. Louisiana has no minimum wage on the books currently, so the state defers to the federal limit which has been $7.25 per hour for the past eight years.

"We can't wait on Congress to address this because they don't seem capable of addressing anything," Edwards told his radio audience.

Edwards said he couldn't offer a concrete timeline on the state's efforts to allow patients access to non-smokeable forms of medical marijuana.

"I wish I could tell you with more certainty how many months it will be before it's available," he said, promising to provide an update during next month's show.

LSU and Southern University, who the Legislature gave exclusive options to grow marijuana for the effort, have recently entered into contracts with companies that will handle those operations.

Officials have estimated that the product could be ready to go by mid-2018.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.