Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office under scrutiny for treatment of inmates, others in custody _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- The Iberia Parish Jail in New Iberia.

If there is one thing we’re pretty confident of, it’s that Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards will follow through on his campaign commitments to make reforms aimed at reducing Louisiana’s bloated jail population.

It’s the ethical thing to do and a financially responsible thing to do, but reforms have the added benefit of being popular.

A bipartisan national group recently funded a poll asking about the changes being talked about, across party lines in Louisiana and other Southern states, to reduce jail populations. The Louisiana respondents overwhelmingly backed the key elements of the “smart on crime” agenda that Edwards and other lawmakers have supported in recent years at the State Capitol.

While eight of 10 respondents said the state’s criminal justice system needs some changes, a majority of 56 percent favored major reforms or a complete overhaul. The survey was of 500 likely voters in November, with a margin of error of about 4 percent.

We think this is good news, because one of the difficulties of bringing change to a far-flung operation of prisons, courts and criminal justice programs is the sheer number of actors in the system. Gaining agreement on change is not easy. All are agreed that the first priority is public safety, but there has also been a growing appreciation that locking up nonviolent offenders, or locking up the mentally ill who cause disturbances, wastes precious resources and does little to protect the law-abiding.

With Louisiana No. 1 in prisoners per its population, the case for changes here is pressing, but it’s been a complex undertaking — even with the bipartisan support of civic groups and public officials.

In a recent interview with The Advocate, Edwards pointed to sobriety, drug courts and programs for the mentally ill and veterans as promising ways to shrink an inmate population that the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics pegged at about 38,000 last year.

“We have to look at proven strategies that have been implemented elsewhere,” Edwards said.

We agree and are hopeful that the coalition of conservative and liberal organizations interested in change can make more headway in the new Edwards administration. Some sentencing reforms and other measures have passed and been signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal, but Louisiana has still not moved as far or as fast as Texas and other states in our region, particularly with alternatives to incarceration.

A goal of moving Louisiana away from the title of Corrections Capital of the United States will require leadership from the governor’s office. Edwards, as the son and grandson of Louisiana sheriffs, is perhaps uniquely able to fashion compromises with officials, state and local.

While he did not elaborate on specifics in the campaign, Edwards “certainly indicated a number of times that this was an issue he wanted to address, and he recognized that our status as the leading incarcerator is not a good thing,” said Kevin Kane, of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank that focuses on criminal justice reform in the state.

We look forward to progress in the new administration.