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

Amid a wearying legislative session on the budget, precious little was done to restore state finances. But although it will take time to mature, a landmark package of bills aimed at whittling away at the state's prison population could be good for both public safety and the taxpayers' pockets.

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bills amid some hoopla, with an array of advocates for prison reform on hand to celebrate a bipartisan success in the legislative process.

"I'm not proud of our title as the most incarcerated state, but that is now going to be a part of our history," Edwards said.

One day, but not yet. While we commend the legislators and citizen groups who drove these reforms, Louisiana today still locks up a larger percentage of its people than any other state, and changing that will require a long-term commitment, including follow-through in a complex system that includes not only state prisons but local jails, and the courts.

The "historic achievement" of the 2017 Legislature is undoubtedly significant. "I've been around and near the halls of this Capitol for 20 years now ... I am not sure I have seen more impactful legislation passed," said Flozell Daniels, of the Foundation for Louisiana, a criminal justice reform advocate. "We have made a way for us to impact thousands of people's lives."

Daniels served on the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, appointed by Edwards to bring best practices and data-driven policy to the prison system. The 10 bills in the package involved political risks, and several of them were contentious.

The goal is to reduce the state's prison population by 10 percent over the next decade. The savings the state will generate for no longer housing those inmates is projected to be $262 million, of which 70 percent has been obligated for programs to rehabilitate offenders and support victims.

The new laws will reduce mandatory minimums, trim some sentences and give some inmates access to parole eligibility sooner — although a more comprehensive rewrite of the felony charges was deferred on the demand of district attorneys.

The bills create 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 weights, 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.

"Today, we begin building the system we want rather than continue to settle for the system we have," Edwards said.

That will only happen if inmates are better prepared for life on the outside, with job skills and a chance to reintegrate into society, rather than joining the grim parade of re-offenders back in Angola or other prisons.

We commend the citizen activists from across the state, including faith leaders, who helped to make such a sweeping reform package possible. But the band should not be packed away after the signing celebration, because political momentum for change is going to be needed in the months and years ahead, not least in the debates over felony sentencing, deferred this year.

The governor is exactly correct: We have begun to build the system we want, but the system we have is used to doing things the way it always has.