Campaign commercials for John Bel Edwards win awards

Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, right, and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards on the campaign trail in 2015.

Reducing Louisiana's nation-leading incarceration rate is one of those goals that everybody talks about, but nobody seems to be able to achieve. But with the Legislature poised to tackle a wide-ranging criminal justice package over the next several months, there's actually reason for optimism.

It's not just that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who campaigned on the issue in 2015, is planning to throw his weight behind the proposed changes. He's done that before with other campaign promises, things like slightly raising the minimum wage and making it easier for women to pursue wage discrimination complaints, and has been stymied by Republican lawmakers.

It's more that this time, there's a diverse coalition behind the drive — and that it now includes Edwards' vanquished opponent, former Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

The idea of Edwards and Vitter wearing the same jersey is a symbolically powerful one, even it's kind of jarring. The two men faced one another in a bitter campaign, and despite his decisive loss, some of Vitter's GOP allies are maneuvering to try to unseat the governor in 2019. And don't forget that Vitter launched one of the election season's ugliest attacks against Edwards over precisely this issue, even though he too was touting some reform-minded proposals in his own literature. 

But if there were ever an area where it makes sense for them to come together, it's criminal justice reform. Against all odds and contrary to overall trends nationally and here in Louisiana, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly finding common ground in understanding that tough-on-crime laws have left too many non-violent offenders locked up without hope, destroyed the communities they left behind, and cost the public way too much money.

The proposals, released by a task force last week, aim to shed 13 percent of Louisiana's prison population and save the public $150 million over the next 10 years. The recommendations focus on reducing sentences for non-violent crimes, expanding alternative treatment programs, increasing probation opportunities, and creating more consistency and equity in sentencing.

Conservative groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum, the state's most prominent religious right champion, are involved. So is the Pelican Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank that has hired Vitter as a consultant. 

None of that means Vitter deserves a pass for his behavior during the campaign.

Back when he was trying to discredit his opponent, Vitter ran an incendiary and racially tinged ad claiming that Edwards' proposed policies would unleash a flood of crime.

“Voting for Edwards is like voting to make Obama Louisiana’s next governor,” the ad’s narrator charged in a distorted, alarmist tone. “Want proof? Obama dangerously calls for releasing 6,000 criminals from jail. Edwards joined Obama, promising at Southern University he’ll release 5,500 in Louisiana alone. Fifty-five hundred dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhoods.”

The commercial drew widespread condemnation and allegations of race baiting by the local NAACP. And Edwards correctly pointed out that he had proposed no such thing.

Even worse, by attempting to paint Edwards as soft on crime, Vitter only helped stoke the sort of fears that could give reform proponents cold feet. Already, the state's district attorneys are questioning the task force's proposals to allow inmates serving lengthy or life sentences for violent crimes to be eligible for parole.

And face it, legislators aren't going to be thrilled at the prospect that someone might run a Vitter-type ad against them.

Vitter's new assignment bolstering support — and presumably calming fears — among his fellow conservatives suggests he understands that his attack against Edwards is exactly the sort of thing that makes the landscape for reform that much more challenging. Honestly, he's smart enough to have known all along.

Now, he's got a chance to make up for it. And after the way Vitter went after Edwards two years ago, lending his name, expertise and lingering influence with the state's most conservative legislators to the cause is really the least he can do.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.