A bipartisan group of criminal justice reform advocates is backing three pieces of legislation at the Louisiana Capitol this session that supporters say will make it easier for offenders to re-enter society and keep them from ending up back behind bars.
The move marks the U.S. Justice Action Network’s foray into Louisiana legislative politics, bolstered by broad support from prominent legislators from both sides of the aisle, as well as a bipartisan slate of advocacy groups.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country — an issue the state has grappled with for years with little effect. An estimated 15,000 offenders are released from Louisiana prisons each year, but about half of them end up back behind bars within five years — a trend advocates say they hope to change with the re-entry efforts.
“We can’t just keep going down the same path we’ve been going down,” said Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge.
The three bills on the legislative agenda for the national U.S. Justice Action Network and its backers in Louisiana include one that would create a new certificate that ex-offenders could show potential employers (House Bill 145), one that aims to encourage people to become mentors for offenders who are under specialty court supervision (House Bill 146) and one that would establish new “reentry courts” in three additional judicial districts across the state — adding to the nine existing ones (House Bill 347).
“We’re all on the same page about trying to do everything we can for men and women who deserve more than just a second chance, but a chance at living productive, happy and healthy lives,” Edmonds said.
The U.S. Justice Action Network began surveying Louisiana voters during the gubernatorial election last fall to test voters’ attitudes about prison reform here.
Its poll found 91 percent of respondents think the state should embrace more rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders and ensure people are less likely to end up back in jail.
“One of the major reasons that we will invest resources in Louisiana is there are real bipartisan champions for reform,” said Holly Harris, the group’s executive director.
Harris said re-entry is one of three pillars toward addressing incarceration issues.
Others are over-criminalization and over-incarceration.
All three bills on the group’s agenda are scheduled to hit the House floor next week.
The new certification that would be created by HB145 would help shield employers from lawsuits over negligent hiring of or failing to adequately supervise ex-offenders that they hire when those actions are based solely on the prior criminal conviction.
Under HB146, mentors and other agents of the court would be protected from some liability related to injuries or losses caused by offenders.
And HB347 would set up re-entry court programs, similar to programs already offered in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in these judicial districts: 14th, which is centered in Lake Charles; 21st, which is based in Livingston; and 32nd, based in Houma.
Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat who has served in the state House since 2007, has long taken on criminal justice issues. She said going into various churches in her district, which covers areas of north Baton Rouge, downtown, Old South Baton Rouge and Mid City, she has pastors have people affected by incarceration raise their hands.
“There are a lot of hands that go up,” Smith said. “We are more than ready to see changes in our prison system in Louisiana because so many people are in jail who shouldn’t be there.”
Kevin Kane, executive director of the Pelican Institute, said he thinks the time is right for Louisiana to begin to chip away at the issue. He cited successes across the state’s borders in Texas and Mississippi.
“People see what’s happening in other states,” he said. “People realize we need to make changes.”
Edmonds said incarceration issues affect everyone — even his affluent southeast Baton Rouge district — and he sees the issue as one of spiritual importance.
“From the faith-based side of the equation, I’m glad we are responding in a way that says, ‘We’re here to help families come back together,’ ” Edmonds said. “The lord loves everyone.”