A bipartisan federal criminal justice overhaul passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Senate this week reverberated politically in Louisiana.
The state’s U.S. senators split over the issue, with Sen. John Kennedy repeatedly attacking Louisiana’s own state-level slate of reforms as he helped lead the small band of opponents to the federal bill.
An unusual coalition of right- and left-wing groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union, conservative religious group like the Family Research Council and influential business associations — backed Louisiana’s overhaul and also lined up behind the federal First Step Act, which passed Tuesday evening 87 to 12.
President Donald Trump endorsed the First Step Act and spent part of the week loudly cheering it on from his Twitter account. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner lobbied for the bill and helped broker the bipartisan agreement.
Louisiana Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, met with Kushner and Trump to discuss prison and sentencing reforms. During the governor’s monthly call-in radio show on Wednesday, Edwards took a jab at Kennedy’s stance on the reforms and praised Sen. Bill Cassidy for his support.
"You know, 87-12, I think Sen. Kennedy is backwards on this," Edwards said, referring to the lopsided margin of the U.S. Senate vote. "I think Sen. Kennedy got it wrong."
Cassidy, , a fellow Louisiana Republican, had signed on as a sponsor of the bill and voted for it. In doing so, he parted ways with Kennedy, who pushed several amendments designed to derail the package.
In fact, Kennedy and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, ended up being the only two truly outspoken opponents of the First Step Act. Both ended up taking heat from members of their own party for repeatedly describing the bill as a danger to public safety.
The other 10 senators voting against the bill were also Republicans. But the majority of the Senate GOP — including some of the most conservative members — backed the changes, a sign of a shifting national consensus away from the tough-on-crime approach to drug enforcement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Kennedy stood by his criticism of the First Step Act in a conference call with Louisiana reporters Wednesday afternoon but softened his rhetoric, saying he didn’t think any senator would consciously endanger public safety and that he “respectfully disagreed” with his colleagues and the president on the issue.
Kennedy, however, threw yet another barb at Edwards — a frequent target of his criticism — saying of the federal criminal justice bill that he’d “seen this movie before at the state level.”
“He (Edwards) said, ‘Don’t worry, they’re non-violent.’ Someone forgot to tell the criminals he turned loose because they’ve been very violent,” Kennedy said. “I certainly don’t want to see that happen at the federal level.”
Kennedy, a Republican from Madisonville, has for months attempted to portray Louisiana’s criminal justice package — back by Edwards and passed with bipartisan support in 2017 — as a violence-plagued failure.
That’s a characterization that defenders of Louisiana’s reforms have challenged as ill-informed and inaccurate. Louisiana prison officials have argued it’s still far too early to gauge how many prisoners freed early under the changes commit new offenses.
Kennedy leveled similar criticism of Louisiana’s efforts for months, denouncing the 2017 effort as “an unqualified disaster” during a February committee hearing on an earlier version of the federal First Step Act.
That led to criticism of Kennedy from supporters of the overhaul on both sides of the political aisle. Edwards penned a letter to U.S. senators apologizing for Kennedy’s “untruthful comments.”
The federal First Step Act allows federal inmates to earn reduced sentences by participating in classes and programs. It also overhauls strict federal sentencing laws — dropping strict mandatory minimum sentences and giving judges more discretion — and scales back the tough federal “three strikes” penalty for repeat drug offenders.
The bill applies only to federal prisoners convicted in federal court. The vast majority of prisoners — including nearly all convicted of serious violent crimes — were tried in state courts and are serving time in state prisons.
Among Kennedy’s proposed amendments was a requirement that federal wardens solicit input from crime victims before making any decision to shorten prison sentences and that the wardens notify all victims of any early releases.
Kennedy’s amendments were seen as an attempt to sabotage the bill because it would upset the careful negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over its exact provisions.
A number of crime victim advocacy groups also opposed Kennedy’s notification amendment because it wouldn’t allow victims to opt out of receiving updates on changes in sentences. Federal law already allows crime victims to request updates but some victims prefer not to receive them because they don’t want to relive memories of the crime.
Cassidy declared on Twitter that he joined Trump in backing the bill “because breaking the cycle of recidivism and crime will save taxpayers money and make our streets safer.”
Cassidy signed onto the bill as a cosponsor and trumpeted an amendment he added requiring the Federal Bureau of Prisons to screen inmates for dyslexia, a reading disorder Cassidy said helps drive crime because illiterate inmates have dim employment prospects outside of prisons.
Cassidy’s daughter is dyslexic and his wife, Dr. Laura Cassidy, runs the Louisiana Key Academy charter school, which specializes in teaching children with the disorder.
The couple wrote a guest column in The Hill newspaper Wednesday arguing that treating prisoners for dyslexia could give former federal prisoners a better shot at obtaining a quality job after finishing their sentences.
Advocate staff writer Elizabeth Crisp contributed to this report.