At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in politically polarized times. Issues that once united the parties and the country have turned fiercely partisan, and topics that once were merely contentious are now frequently framed as showdowns between good and evil.
That makes the slow but steady progress on one huge problem facing Louisiana and the country — prison and sentencing reform — all the more remarkable. Against all odds, Republicans and Democrats are coming together to re-examine a system that’s left millions locked up, often for nonviolent, low-level crimes or far past the point at which they’re rehabilitated enough to lead productive lives on the outside.
The nation’s mass incarceration, a product of years of rigid, zero-tolerance policies such as the “War on Drugs,” is increasingly viewed not only as a moral crisis — particularly given the disproportionate impact on African-American men — but also a financial one, as taxpayers must pick up the tab for an inefficient, failed system. And Louisiana, with its world-leading incarceration rate, should be ground zero for the cause.
Nationally, prison reform advocates range from Democratic President Barack Obama to Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who put his state at the forefront of the movement. Things are moving in the right direction here too, with GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal’s support.
Progress hasn’t always been easy. A 2012 bill by state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, to allow some nonviolent offenders serving life sentences the possibility of parole was sidelined in the Senate before Republican Danny Martiny, of Metairie, pushed to revive it.
“I’m not here to condone that or say, ‘let them all out of jail,’ ” Martiny told his colleagues, “but give them some light at the end of the tunnel. … The cost of incarceration is killing us.”
By spring of this year, the temperature had dropped to the point where the Legislature overwhelmingly created a task force to seek data-driven policies to reduce the prison population. Nobody in the House, and just two senators, voted against the resolution authored by state Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat.
As Martiny hinted when he called on his colleagues to show some courage, perhaps the biggest hurdle for politicians seeking solutions is not basic understanding of the issues. It’s fear of being tagged soft on crime in, oh, let’s just say a campaign ad.
And that brings us to Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s first on-air assault against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the gubernatorial runoff.
“Voting for Edwards is like voting to make Obama Louisiana’s next governor,” the ad’s narrator charges 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.”
OK, put aside Vitter’s obvious race-baiting, fear-mongering and his attempt to establish guilt by tenuous association between Edwards and Obama, which seems to be Vitter’s primary line of argument in the runoff (if you’ve got any doubt, check out the website the Vitter campaign set up, johnbelobama.com).
And forget for a moment that Edwards proposes nothing out of the mainstream. According to his campaign, he backs an increase in pretrial diversion programs, a change in sentencing for nonviolent offenders and more use of specialty courts.
“I have never supported reducing our incarceration rate by releasing criminals from jail, as the smear ad suggests. Rather, my statement about inmates in the speech referenced was about reducing the prison population through long-term solutions without harming public safety,” Edwards said in a statement.
Even leave aside that Vitter himself has voiced vague support for prison reform, in public forums and following a closed-door campaign meeting with criminal justice leaders earlier this year.
The attack on his opponent, sleazy as it is, isn’t the worst of Vitter’s offenses here.
Even more damaging is the possibility that voters who see the ad might believe it, that they may start thinking that attempts at prison reform really do amount to a lax attitude toward crime and penalize politicians who support it. By launching this ad, Vitter’s playing with fire and potentially undermining long-fought, fragile public support for genuine, bipartisan progress, all for the sake of short-term political gain.
And that’s a lot more dangerous than anything Edwards proposes.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.