Louisiana Taxes

House Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, left, speaks with Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, ahead of a hearing on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

Associated Press Photo by Melinda Deslatte

Traditionally, it's been Louisiana's Democrats and liberal social justice advocates who have pushed for reforms in the state's criminal justice system — asking for more lenient drug sentences, programs to rehabilitate criminals and softer penalties for nonviolent offenders. Those efforts have always run into stiff headwinds in the form of policymakers who preferred a "tough on crime" approach. 

But this year, a Republican-dominated Legislature signed off by large margins on sweeping changes that will trim jail sentences and expand parole opportunities to offenders in jail — and, analysts predict, will reduce the overall jail population by 10 percent over a decade. 

While the comprehensive effort was a bipartisan one that had the backing of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, the actual passage of the changes this year was the result mostly of conservative groups that have taken up the mantle of prison reform and offered their blessing to the GOP members who cast their votes for the reforms.

"For me, having some of the more conservative groups like (the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry) and the Family Forum bring a balance to the perspective" was important, said Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, who supported all 10 of the reform bills in the legislative session. "Having their buy-in goes a long way to reassure the public." 

Ivey said he's not an expert on the intricacies of criminal justice reform, but he was able to lean on the assurances of trusted conservative organizations that favored the measures.

During a couple of the tougher votes on the House floor, Ivey took to the microphone to remind his Republican colleagues that the measures were backed by the Family Forum, an influential conservative Christian organization that lobbies for traditional family values legislation.

If corrections reform started on the left as a social justice issue, it's evolved into an issue of fiscal responsibility and public safety for the right as the costs of mass incarceration have ballooned. Louisiana is only the latest in a growing list of "red" states where the business community and conservatives are driving reforms. 

About a decade ago, Texas' prison population was bursting at the seams, and state officials projected three more prisons would have to be built to keep up with demand. So legislative leaders partnered with a think tank to develop a plan to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into rehabilitation, substance abuse treatment and prison diversion programs.

Since the targeted reinvestment, Texas has shuttered five prisons and is preparing to close four more because of a drop in the inmate population. The state has saved billions of dollars and launched a model that other red states would replicate. 

"Other states started to say, 'If Texas can do this, why can't we?' ” said Glen Glod, a manager of Right on Crime, a conservative organization that has emerged out of Texas' experience to help other states tackle similar reforms. "We use the pillars of conservatism like a limited government and fiscal responsibility to drive our message." 

Right on Crime has since worked in several other states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Utah, North Carolina and Georgia, as well as Louisiana.

New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff was among the pioneers in the local business community pushing for changes to the state's sentencing and correction laws. Kabacoff said he was inspired by a series of 2012 newspaper articles that highlighted Louisiana's status as the world's incarceration capital. 

"I decided that with the sheriffs and district attorneys seemingly opposing any fundamental change in criminal justice, I would see if I could get business organizations to step up to the plate and become important voices in the Legislature," Kabacoff said. 

Kabacoff assembled a small coalition that included Jay Lapeyre, president of Laitram Corp., a manufacturing company that employs some 1,900 people worldwide.

The group, calling itself Smart on Crime, partnered with the Pelican Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank that provided policy support. Kevin Kane, the Pelican Institute's founder, was for years one of the leading voices for sentencing reform in Louisiana before he died last year of cancer.

"Progressive groups like the (American Civil Liberties Union) and the Urban League had been pushing on this issue for a long time, but we were the first group that coalesced that was primarily bringing the business muscle to this issue in Louisiana," said Michael Cowan, a Loyola University professor who worked with business leaders on the Smart on Crime steering committee.

Cowan had pursued local crime initiatives for years, but he said it became "crystal clear that if we didn't have conservative leadership leverage, this issue was going to be stuck like it had been for so long before." 

He added: "To be real blunt, elected political leaders listen to powerful business leaders because they need support for campaigns."  

Eventually, well-known local business leaders and campaign influencers were on board, such as Lane Grigsby, founder of Cajun Industries in Baton Rouge, who also has been a champion of charter schools.

Last fall, LABI, Greater New Orleans Inc. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted a criminal justice summit in Baton Rouge featuring business leaders and conservative lawmakers from other states who explained the business advantages of supporting a prison revamp. And nationwide, conservative heavyweights like Grover Norquist, the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich were championing the issue. 

Stephen Waguespack, LABI president, said the issue had appeal for many employers with workforce challenges. 

"We need people who can read and write and have good soft skills," he said. "There's no reason why, if we have people leaving incarceration, we shouldn't improve things on the re-entry side and help meet our workforce demand." 

Meanwhile, Gene Mills, of the Louisiana Family Forum, was a supporter of the reforms for a different reason. He and many other church leaders have practiced prison ministry for years and have seen firsthand that offenders, even violent ones, can be rehabilitated. 

"What I've seen is that these people are human beings with human lives and families," he said. "And they are capable of making good choices and good decisions even after having made some bad ones." 

Once it appeared Louisiana was serious about change, Pew Charitable Trusts entered the scene. Pew has worked with three dozen states to provide data about how policy changes translate into inmate population reductions and cost savings. 

"One of the big changes was that more data and evidence has become available, and in some ways, that made it more possible to bring conservatives to the table," said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "That was a language that conservatives understood, while the language progressives used was about human dignity, the morality of the issue and the theory of punishment." 

But at least two Democrats also were key to moving the ball in Louisiana this year. One was New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger III, who sponsored the bill to create the justice reinvestment task force, which made recommendations that became the legislation. The other was Edwards, who made the bills part of his legislative agenda. 

That was a double-edged sword. Cowan said there was a real concern that Edwards' support of the bills could have encouraged some Republicans to oppose them as the two parties jockey for power.

"This was a conservative issue. The governor didn't begin it; the governor supported it," Lapeyre said, when asked if Edwards' support was advantageous. "It came from the legislative task force."

But Leger said Edwards' involvement was necessary. He noted that earlier criminal justice efforts had started under Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, who was much more timid about prison reform. 

The Jindal administration sent signals early on that certain sentencing reform bills would be vetoed, which either discouraged lawmakers from pursuing legislation entirely or encouraged resistance from other legislators, Leger said.

Graybill, whose organization has spent decades working on sentencing reforms, said she is happy to have more people on board with the program, regardless of what side of the aisle they're from. 

"We approach it for different reasons, but the outcomes are the same. Whatever reason brings you to the table, it's OK," she said. "We now have more folks on our team, which is awesome."

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.