Criminal Justice bill signing

Legislators and court officials line up behind Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday, June 15, 2017, as he signs the package of bills that overhaul the state's criminal justice system.

Advocate Photo by Rebekah Allen

Our reputation as prison capital of the United States preceded us, but Louisiana is getting more positive recognition for real changes in the way it approaches incarceration and its consequences.

The New York Times editorial board noted Louisiana's turnaround through one of the "most ambitious" reform packages recently passed through the Legislature.

We're glad that the hard work of a bipartisan coalition of officials and a broad-based group of community groups has been acknowledged. The Times' notice is quite positive, even though it could not help but mention that Texas and Mississippi have been ahead of us on this.

The package will reduce mandatory minimums, trim sentences and give some inmates access to parole eligibility sooner. It creates a medical furlough program, which allows the sickest inmates to temporarily receive treatment off site and be eligible for Medicaid, which saves the state on medical costs. The package overhauls drug sentencing, allowing lighter sentences based on the quantity of drugs involved, and streamlines the state's many incongruous theft penalties. One bill in the package will limit how often juvenile offenders can receive life without parole sentences.

The set of 10 new laws, signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June, “would have been remarkable coming from any state," the Times said. "It’s historic coming from Louisiana.”

That it is, although the editorial somewhat overstated the enthusiasm of criminal justice officialdom for many of the changes. Some of the bills were heavily amended in their passage through the Legislature, and several key votes on different measures were closer than the "overwhelming bipartisan majorities" mentioned by the Times' editorial board.

Sausage, as Bismarck said of legislation, requires a fair amount of grinding.

The good news for the taxpayer is that as much as $262 million can be saved over a decade, with 70 percent mandated by law to be put into rehabilitation of offenders and more effective probation and parole.

All those are vital. Even as the ink was barely dry on the criminal justice package, in the special session on the budget, one House amendment sought to shift some of the projected savings into other programs. The full House shot that down, by about three-to-one, but it still got 20 votes in the 105-member chamber.

That the amendment was offered underlines the necessity of the same supporters of the original bills to follow up with vigilance: None of the reforms of 2017 will be effective unless prison officials, local and state, and lawmakers put boots on the ground to make sure that probation and parole are effective.

Prison alternatives, via drug courts, are not free; the costs of giving inmates an education and job training might cost more than the savings currently contemplated. The real payoff is in the future, not only as corrections costs go down, but offenders return to society with a much better chance of a good job.

That is the goal. We're delighted that national observers noticed these measures, which we strongly supported. But we also see the difficulties ahead.