Despite chronic gridlock at the state Capitol, the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards can claim a big victory in 2017 with criminal justice reforms passed through a historic bipartisan effort.
There is a lot of credit to go around for the 10-bill package that is aimed at reducing prison populations by 10 percent or more over the next decade, and plowing savings into a stronger effort to prepare prisoners — with basic education, paired with job skills — to leave the jails and make it on the outside. If it all works out, Louisiana would no longer be America’s incarceration leader, a distinction we have held for two decades.
The extraordinary coalition that passed the bills included faith-based organizations whose members often minister to prisoners directly. Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum was recently recognized nationally for his work, with the Charles Colson Advocate of Hope Award for his commitment to advancing restorative criminal justice.
Much-deserved, but as the advocates who celebrated last year acknowledge, a great deal of work has to be done.
While the state budget is critical to all sorts of criminal justice operations, but particularly Department of Corrections prisons themselves, a continuing budget impasse can damage the commitment to put more money into education, job training and rehabilitation for inmates.
“Now is not the time to short-circuit the gains made in Louisiana’s criminal justice reforms,” commented Elain Ellerbe, state director of the national conservative organization Right on Crime. “Instead legislators should continue to find ways to better utilize dollars spent on corrections and law enforcement building on the reforms in place to make our communities safer and save taxpayer dollars”
While the budget is an immediate concern this year, some other unfinished business from last year's reform effort also has to be dealt with.
In 2017, principally at the behest of prosecutors, the reform bills deleted a proposal setting up a framework for classification of felonies, with punishment based in the severity of the crime. Right now, Louisiana has 626 unique felony crimes, including stealing crawfish.
A classification system is common practice in other states and has the effect typically of reducing some sentences but also by making charges more consistent across the state. That, of course, might also reduce prosecutors’ discretion in who is charged at what level of potential sentencing.
District attorneys weren’t fond of the overall reform effort to begin with, and they joined hands with sheriffs worried that sentence reductions would carve into the fees they earn for housing state inmates. Still, the legislation passed, and the issue of sentencing classifications went to a study committee.
The committee hasn’t reached consensus — not much of a surprise, because it’s a complex challenge — and now legislators who backed the 2017 reforms say that a legislative solution isn’t in the cards this year.
That’s a disappointment. Louisiana made big strides to come into line with most of the Southern states with the bipartisan criminal justice reforms. They will take time to work, but a clear classification system for crimes is a step that has to be taken before we can declare mission accomplished