Conservatives making their case to legislators for a bipartisan package of bills that propose a sweeping revamp of Louisiana’s criminal justice system came back to a familiar theme – how to overcome opposition of the state’s district attorneys.
Lawmakers seem to understand the need to change a system that has made Louisiana the world’s leader for incarcerating the most, per capita, of its citizens, said state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville. But his local district attorney in St. Tammany Parish opposes the bipartisan effort and is lobbying legislators there to vote against the package of bills that would lower criminal sentences, focus more on diversion rather than prison, and improve rehabilitation programs for convicts.
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“The battle really is with the DAs and sheriffs,” Donahue said at the Criminal Justice Reform Breakfast Briefing, sponsored by a coalition of groups that are pursuing legislation that reflect the recommendations of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The panel’s recommendations would reduce the state’s prison population by an estimated 13 percent over the next decade, which would translate to a savings of about $300 million.
Both Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana Family Forum and other conservative groups that usually oppose the Democratic governor, are on the same page with this revamp.
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Law enforcement generally start off opposing such efforts in other states, said Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries Inc. and the featured speaker at the event. But he expressed surprise that Louisiana’s district attorneys are uniformly opposed to the revamp.
“Deep red states like Texas and South Carolina and Georgia passed it and found that it works for them,” Holden said in an interview. “You’d think that they would find comfort in the experiences in those states.”
The two brothers that head Koch Industries contribute liberally to conservative causes and have pushed criminal justice reform as a way to lower crime as well as save money for cash-strapped state governments.
Louisiana spends twice as much on criminal justice as the state does on education, Holden said. But the crime rate remains high. Other states that adopted similar proposals have seen crime rates drop.
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“It’ll save Louisiana taxpayers millions and millions of dollars,” Holden told the briefing. “This is a pretty easy lift.”
More than two dozen legislators attended the breakfast that was opened by Tony Perkins of Family Research Council. Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter also was in the audience.
Legislators are considering about 10 measures, filed by both Democrats and Republicans, which would change the way Louisiana prosecutes crimes and imprisons those who are found guilty. Edwards has put many of the measures in his gubernatorial package for the legislative session that ends June 8.
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Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said he and other members of the task force have been trying to educate the district attorneys about the benefits, but so far to no avail.
He’s particularly worried about Senate Bills 220 and 139. Sponsored by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, SB220 would change the sentences that could be rendered for the different classes of felonies. SB139 is sponsored by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, and would change the timeline for when an offender could be discharged from prison.
“The DAs oppose both,” LeBlanc said. “If we don’t pass 139 and 220, the savings goes out window.”