Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks Thursday, March 16, 2017, during a meeting at the State Capitol of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force in which members detailed their plan for criminal justice reform during the upcoming legislative session.

WASHINGTON — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards touted the state's progress toward cutting its prison population at a Capitol Hill event Tuesday, highlighting reduced costs and the anticipated shedding of the state's most-incarcerated title.

Edwards also struck back at critics of the criminal justice overhaul, which passed the state Legislature with bipartisan support last spring.

The governor said those attacking the reforms — citing media coverage of new crimes committed by a handful of inmates released early under the changes — were "fear-mongering" and misrepresenting the package.

Less than an hour later, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy sent out a video blasting the criminal justice overhaul, saying he had "zero confidence in the ability of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections to administer it in a way that protects the people of Louisiana from violent criminals."

Kennedy, who did not attend the panel discussion with Edwards, highlighted "numerous scandals" at the Department of Corrections — including allegations of nepotism and fraud in the prison system — as he called the agency "unfit to administer" the changes.

The senator said the law "let criminals free early to save money" and pointed to media reports of mismanagement by corrections officials as well as arrests of those recently released from jail.

Kennedy also pointed to critical reports by the Legislative Auditor that raised questions about the Department of Corrections' ability to keep track of inmates and accurately calculate release dates.

"And yet they're going to be in charge of deciding which prisoners to release into our communities to save money?" Kennedy said.

Edwards, speaking with The Advocate just after the panel discussion and before Kennedy's video was released, noted that inmates released early under the law changes already had release dates and were all serving prison time for non-violent crimes, mostly for drugs or property offenses. 

"The average release was two months early," Edwards said. "A big percentage of the people who were released early would've been released by today regardless."

The Governor's Office also fired back at Kennedy — whose name often comes up as a potential Republican challenger to Edwards in 2019 — in a lengthy and scathing statement.

"Is anyone really surprised anymore that Sen. Kennedy would create an opportunity to score cheap political points by spouting wildly inaccurate and unrelated nonsense at the expense of the most promising bipartisan efforts to improve Louisiana’s criminal justice system and improve public safety in a decade all in the hopes that it would benefit him personally?" Tucker Barry, Edwards' press secretary, wrote.

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"Sen. Kennedy is too caught up in his own political ambitions to see reality, and the reality is that the criminal justice reforms passed during the last legislative session were advanced by a bipartisan task force," Barry added.

The panel discussion Edwards attended was organized by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit research group that provided staffing and support to the state task force that crafted the criminal justice overhauls.

Edwards held out Louisiana as a potential model for other states — or federal officials — contemplating an overhaul to their own court and prison systems.

"Change is possible, bipartisan wins are possible and the stakes couldn't be higher," Edwards said.

The governor headed to the White House after the Pew event to talk about criminal justice issues with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser. Kushner has shown an interest in criminal justice reform and reached out to Edwards to arrange the meeting.

At the Pew event, Edwards said the state had been seeing a "poor return on investment" under its criminal laws.

The sprawling state prison system — which locks up a higher proportion of residents than any other state in the country — eats up taxpayer money but hadn't made Louisiana significantly safer, Edwards said. The governor called the wide-ranging changes a "smarter" approach to crime.

Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, state Rep. Tanner Magee and Natalie Laborde of the Department of Corrections also spoke.

Magee, a Houma Republican, 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.

Magee highlighted changes making it easier for those leaving prison to get valid identification cards and driver's licenses — both steps essential to finding and holding down a job — and discouraging judges from sending those on probation back to jail for unpaid fines.

But Webre said additional investment in the criminal justice system is needed. The sheriff said more funding for mental health and drug treatment services would help address underlying issues for those locked up.

And Edwards, Magee, Webre and Laborde all said more probation officers are needed to properly supervise and help a growing number of Louisianans serving time on probation or parole. In addition to speeding the release of some nonviolent inmates, the criminal justice changes also encourage judges to sentence more people to probation instead of prison.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.