John Kennedy

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

J. Scott Applewhite

John N. Kennedy loves a brawl, so the new U.S. senator from Louisiana was happy to start one over prison reform  on the same day his state's governor was invited to the White House to talk about the subject.

Kennedy blasted the correctional reforms passed by bipartisan majorities in the 2017 Legislature and rehearsed many of the arguments of partisan Republican opponents of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards responded in kind, saying that the senator was distorting the evidence. Kennedy was, though not all of the senator's objections are invalid.

In fact, the senator would have heard some of the same issues raised had he opted for a quiet listening session instead of a press release. Edwards and several Louisiana leaders spoke at a national discussion of prison reforms in Washington on Wednesday.

Edwards said the state had been seeing a "poor return on investment" under its criminal laws, locking up a higher proportion of residents than any other state in the country, and then seeing vast numbers of ill-educated inmates return to jail, having been poorly prepared for life outside.

He was joined by Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre and state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, who backed change. Magee said data on the state's prison system had been eye-opening — especially when it showed Louisiana out of step even with other conservative states in the Deep South, locking up more people for drugs and other nonviolent crimes.

“We take a real pride in Louisiana of being 49th to Mississippi’s 50th," Magee said sarcastically, "but we weren’t even beating Mississippi in this category.”

Both Magee and Webre, a former president of the National Association of Sheriffs, said reforms making it easier for former inmates to build law-abiding lives outside of prison were particularly important.

We generally agree with what the Louisiana delegation said, including the vital need to put more money into education, mental health and substance abuse treatment and more effective probation and parole. We don't want to just match Mississippi but do better, as Texas and many other states have done.

Had Kennedy been able to be at the event, he would have found that some of his concerns — such as the large caseloads for probation officers — are not misplaced and are in fact shared by responsible officials backing the new laws.

We share Kennedy's concerns about the Department of Corrections, where nepotism among the families of top officials has been rife and questionable practices continue under the longtime management of the department. But to conflate these problems with the challenges of sentencing reform spreads more heat than light.

President Trump's son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner took the proper tack, advancing a discussion without regard to party lines. And Magee is right, too, that policy ought to be driven by data and not the sum of our fears about crime.

 

Our Views: A risk worth taking to end Louisiana's incarceration culture