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Kenneth Polite

If you were less than riveted by the spreadsheets about recidivism rates from the Pew Institute, presented at the lengthy meetings over the last 18 months or so of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, things might get even more tedious if the discussion now turns to Louisiana's 600 laws related to felonies, the most serious crimes.

But it is one of the next big debates over criminal justice reform, begun in earnest this month by the early release of some 1,900 inmates considered good risks under new laws passed by the 2017 Legislature in a bipartisan initiative and signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

It's going to be more complex and, if anything, more contentious.

The release of any inmate, having served his time, is a bit of a risk, humans being what they are. At least one in Kenner has apparently already taken to holdups instead of the gainful employment he was supposedly trained for in prison.

But by and large, exceptions are probably going to be rare, says journalist Kerry Myers, who has followed prison reform from an unusually knowledgeable perspective, having been given a life sentence at Angola. Editor of the award-winning Angolite prison magazine, his record persuaded parole boards and finally Edwards in 2016 to agree he had been rehabilitated. The governor commuted his sentence.

Myers said the data support the former task force's recommendations, although there were necessarily political compromises in the legislative process. Louisiana is behind other Southern states from Texas to North Carolina in seeking to cut prison populations and put more inmates through education and job training. Crime has gone down, and recidivism has been reduced.

It's going to be a tough slog, Myers said. The state must find money to reinvest — as per the task force's name — because it doesn't have the ready cash for reforms that were put in place in other states. Still, he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, it is probably the most extensive Louisiana reform in 60 years.

Left to the new task force are revisions to the felony statutes, resisted by district attorneys and sheriffs in the last legislative session. Kenneth Polite, the former U.S. attorney from New Orleans, has the thankless task of heading the new study committee.

Myers said 40 states have some form of felony class system, ranking the infractions and providing some basis for intelligent sentencing. But the stubborn forces of the old system, and even more the tiresome nature of such discussions, is likely to make it difficult for Polite's committee members, much less the public.

Add to that the politics of any tragedy: "There are people in this state who would love to find the next Willie Horton," Myers said.

He referred to the politically infamous commercials of the presidential campaign of 1988, when Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was accused of pardoning a black inmate who went on to armed robbery and rape.

In fact, he skipped out on a weekend furlough program that Dukakis did not start (it began under one of his Republican predecessors) but nevertheless supported.

Willie Horton 2.0 may be out there somewhere, but what Myers called the extraordinary coalition of conservatives and liberals, business groups and churches is still a potent force in the State Capitol. You don't build policy on exceptions, "and this is not me speaking, this is the data," Myers said.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

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