john legend a

Singer John Legend, center, discussed legislative efforts to revamp Louisiana's criminal justice system on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.

Advocate photo by Elizabeth Crisp

As part of a nationwide tour promoting efforts to reduce incarcerations, Grammy-award winning singer John Legend showed up at the State Capitol last week to endorse the legislative attempt to overhaul Louisiana’s criminal justice system.

"I hope that you will be able to help us build a better narrative — one that recognizes that mass incarceration doesn't make us safer, but actually makes us all more vulnerable. It destroys communities, wastes resources, separates families and ruins lives," Legend told the House Judiciary Committee. He also mildly upbraided the Edwards administration for agreeing to remove about 40 violent offenses that would be covered in the sweeping rewrite of the state's approach to crime and prisoner rehabilitation.

Legend was then given a primer on Louisiana politics by the members of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, whose findings led to the legislation being considered now. The bills aim to reduce the overall numbers of incarcerated offenders and thereby lower the financial burden on taxpayers.

Though widely supported by competing special interest groups that rarely work together, much less with Democrats and Gov. John Bel Edwards, the bipartisan effort at reducing Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate needs buy-in from law enforcement.

What Legend bumped up against was not so much a conservative cage fight — businessmen and faith community versus prosecutors and sheriffs — over two key measures that change state criminal laws, but the prelude to the most important proposal: House Bill 489, which describes how all those savings will be calculated and how that money will be spent. The bill will be heard in a few weeks.

The fog that surrounds this war is the Legislature’s long history of rallying around the latest, greatest idea, checking off the box, then moving to the next new thing.

Democratic Rep. Terry Landry, a member of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, recalls how a couple of decades ago storied legislators John Hainkel, a conservative New Orleans Republican, and Donald Cravins, a liberal Democrat from Opelousas, vowed to fix the gladiator-in-training quality of the state’s juvenile prisons. A broad, bipartisan group of legislators got behind sweeping changes called the “Missouri model,” setting up the legal structure to allow for less prison and more hands-on work closer to home.

“It was great,” said Landry, a former Louisiana State Police superintendent whose legislative district covers parts of New Iberia and Lafayette.

“But all we did was adopt it. We didn’t fund it,” Landry said.

Now when a judge orders a young criminal confined, law enforcement needs to scramble to find a placement, any bed, which leads, for instance, to violent youngsters being sent to facilities for the mentally impaired.

Texas poured tax dollars, upfront, into programs that reduce inmates' chances of returning to prison after release. Louisiana plans to fund its recidivism-reduction programs with any savings realized from jailing fewer criminals.

And how will that money be distributed?

Look at the bottom of page 3 of HB489. The Department of Corrections will calculate how much was saved “as a result of reforms,” then 70 percent of that amount next year will go to fund programs. In following years only 50 percent will go to pay for programs and the rest will go into the state general fund.

Landry says the amounts and setup isn’t ideal. But it’s practical and designed to win approval from legislators who don’t want to be seen as coddling criminals or creating another lock box in the state budget by dedicating dollars for a specific purpose.

What the state’s 64 sheriffs fear most, says their representative, Michael Ranatza, is that the criminal justice revamp will end up being another gussied-up budget cut.

“We can’t just start a program, then in a couple of years change the funding formulas,” said Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

Statistics show that nearly half of all the freed inmates commit another crime within five years of their release. That’s why there is caution about releasing offenders who commit violent crimes.

Without an ongoing commitment, the only thing accomplished will be a rewrite of the laws defining crimes and the types of punishments, thereby releasing predators on an unsuspecting population, he said.

Helping offenders get high school and college degrees, teaching them how to manage anger and substance abuse, training them for actual jobs, then helping find employment after they leave prison, and other programs are an important part of the calculation.

“At the end of the day we’re asking that this does not turn out to be temporary savings but really does something long term,” Ranatza said. “We have to see this through. We have to finish something.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.