Halfway into Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first term in office, Louisiana shed a dubious distinction that it had held for nearly two decades: The state was no longer the nation’s prison capital.
Oklahoma took the mantel as the top incarcerating state one year after state lawmakers, at Edwards’ urging, adopted a landmark, bipartisan criminal justice overhaul package.
The change will arguably be one of Edwards’ lasting legacies long after he’s left office, but it’s also providing campaign fodder to his main Republican rivals in this fall’s gubernatorial race who have questioned whether Louisiana residents are safer today than they were before Edwards took office and whether the Edwards administration bungled the criminal justice reform effort.
“We’ve got to implement this in a way so that public safety is issue No. 1,” said Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto.
Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone accused the Democrat incumbent of being focused on “getting as many people out as possible.” He said, “In doing so, some people that should not have been released were released. Some dangerous people."
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The Louisiana Legislature has taken no action to significantly change the law in the past two years since its passage, despite some heated rhetoric.
Act 280 allows sentences to be shortened more rapidly for nonviolent, non-sex-crime offenders who receive credit for good behavior — slashing the mandatory time served from 40 percent of their original sentences to 35 percent. The first wave of nearly 2,000 early releases took place on Nov. 1, 2017.
Critics point to at least two who have been accused of murder after receiving early release and others who have ended up back behind bars for lesser offenses as possible indicators that the state should be cautious as it continues to shed inmates.
In both murder cases, offenders records consisted mostly of drug-related offenses and other non-violent crimes.
Many who have been released under the change get out about 30 to 90 days ahead of schedule. Some are "released" with outstanding warrants and transferred to other jurisdictions, so they never technically make it out of custody.
Edwards, whose family has a long history in law enforcement, has defended the effort.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' bid for a second term hinges on his ability to make voters feel comfortable pulling the lever for a Democrat in a state…
“The fact of the matter is, in Louisiana for decades, we had the highest incarceration rate in the nation, but we weren’t safer,” he said. “Our crime rate was unacceptably high, and the recidivism was too high.”
The election is Oct. 12, with a Nov. 16 runoff between the top two vote-getters if no one gets more than 50% in the first round. Early voting runs through Oct. 5.
Just days before voters started to head to the polls for early voting, the FBI released its latest crime statistics data that showed decreases in violent crime and murder in Louisiana — murder down by about 8 percent and overall violent crime by 3.4 percent from 2017 to 2018.
The FBI report is the first that reflects a full year of the 2017 criminal justice measures.
"The decrease in violent crime reaffirms what Republicans, Democrats, faith leaders, business leaders and law enforcement officials said at the time of reform’s passage: we can make our state safer with commonsense reforms that focus on non-violent offenders and invest in crime prevention," Edwards said in a statement touting the results.
Aside from disputes over the effectiveness of the 2017 criminal justice law changes, public safety has prompted a major disagreement among the three candidates over how they would approach the death penalty.
Edwards has withheld his personal views on capital punishment but said he would uphold the law that's on the books. While capital punishment is legal in Louisiana, there have been no executions during Edwards' administration because of a long legal battle over lethal injections and the state's inability to get drugs used in executions.
Rispone has said because of his Catholic faith he opposes the death penalty.
Abraham has said he strongly supports the death penalty, would expand it to convicted child molesters, and consider alternative methods to lethal injection.
But it's the criminal justice overhaul that has taken the forefront in the debate over public safety issues in the governor's race.
Advocates who worked across the political spectrum and studied best practices for more than a year before lawmakers passed their proposal have defended Edwards against criticisms like Abraham and Rispone’s.
“It’s disappointing to see elected officials and candidates for office using criminal justice reforms in disingenuous attacks and political ploys,” Daniel Erspamer, chief executive officer of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy said in a recent statement. “Today’s political debate offers far too few areas of consensus, and misleading scare tactics only further undercut opportunities for meaningful debate and discussion.”
The 10-bill package, which received bipartisan support in both GOP-controlled chambers of the state Legislature, offers alternatives to prison for people convicted of less-serious non-violent, non-sex crimes;
“What they tried to implement was a good attempt at criminal justice reform, but as you get into it you realize we need to do some things that are different,” Rispone said.
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He said he thinks there should be a more holistic approach with a focus on discouraging people from committing crimes or getting help for people who are on a bad path. He described criminal backgrounds he has heard about that start with drug addiction and escalate to theft then robbery and on, all tracking back to the initial foray into drugs.
“It breaks your heart when you listen to these stories,” he said.
He said he also worries that people are getting out of prison without life skills they need to prevent them from returning to a life of crime. “Just locking them up in a cage and hoping that will fix it isn’t working,” Rispone said.
Abraham said public safety is one of the most pressing issues he hears about when talking to people in the community.
“Everybody that you talk to now knows someone who has been affected by one of these early releases,” he said. “People just shake their heads in despair.”
He said he supports efforts to cut the recidivism rate and provide people who get out of prison with resources needed to become productive citizens.
“I want to make sure that people do understand – for nonviolent criminals, I want them to become productive members of society,” Abraham said. “But if you are violent criminal, in a Abraham administration, you will serve every day of your sentence.”