Election 2019 Louisiana Governor (copy)

Gov. John Bel Edwards.

A Republican opponent’s attack ad that labels him soft on crime is “false and misleading,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Friday, echoing the view of several conservative groups that have supported the governor on revamping Louisiana’s often-criticized criminal justice system.

Businessman Eddie Rispone, one of the two Republicans trying to unseat Edwards in the Oct. 12 primary, began broadcasting an ad on Tuesday that says the governor engineered the release of “dangerous criminals,” and that asserts murders are 20% higher since he took office in January 2016.

In an interview, a clearly peeved Edwards said crime numbers are actually trending down while the state is saving money after he and the Republican-majority Legislature in 2017 approved a package of 10 bills that made it easier for non-violent offenders to win earlier release. Both Republican and Democratic legislators sponsored the bills.

“It’s just baseless fear-mongering,” Edwards, a Democrat, said of Rispone’s ad. “It highlights why it’s so important that you be able to summon the courage to take on criminal justice reform in the first place.”

The governor noted that Louisiana no longer has the country’s highest incarceration rate – it’s now the second-highest – adding that the state is reinvesting most of the resulting savings to try and prevent released offenders from returning to prison.

Three different conservative groups that supported the legislation – Smart on Crime Louisiana, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and Right on Crime – all condemned Rispone’s ad on Tuesday and said the changes approved in 2017 are saving money and will make Louisiana safer.

“These bills were based on data and followed the lead of other states such as Texas, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina, and North Carolina,” said Scott Peyton, Louisiana Director for Right on Crime.

Though he said he is happy with the results, Edwards indicated he probably won’t seek additional major changes to the criminal justice system if he wins a second term, although some advocacy groups continue to press for a task force recommendation to offer some prisoners convicted of serious violent crimes — who serve the longest sentences — a chance at earlier release.

“I don’t hear a lot of legislators, quite honestly, telling me that there’s an appetite to go in and do those things,” Edwards said, adding that he would prefer to focus on “protecting the gains” made in the 2017 package and working with sheriffs, district attorneys and judges to fine-tune some of the policies.

Edwards made his comments Friday in a meeting with reporters and members of the editorial board of The Advocate | Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate.

The governor again declined to take a personal position on the death penalty. Instead, Edwards reiterated his past response that he’s “committed to faithfully executing the laws of the state of Louisiana,” including carrying out capital punishment.

The governor noted that his office is defending the state’s death penalty statute in a federal lawsuit that has put all executions on hold since 2014.

Louisiana hasn’t carried out an execution since 2010 and has put just one death-row inmate to death since 2003. State prison officials have struggled to obtain the drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection, the only form of execution allowed under state law, and improvised efforts to buy the pharmaceutical cocktail have been stymied in federal court.

Both of Edwards’ GOP challengers have taken much more direct stances on the issue. Abraham is a death penalty supporter who wants to see more executions carried out – by changing the law if necessary – while Rispone, citing his Catholic faith, opposes capital punishment.

On a related topic, Edwards said he wouldn’t support bringing back firing squads, the electric chair or the hangman’s noose to kill condemned prisoners, all ideas endorsed by state Attorney General Jeff Landry, a frequent GOP critic of Edwards and a full-throated champion of the death penalty.

“I would oppose going back to methods of execution that we moved away from,” Edwards said. “We did it because we thought that they were cruel and inhumane.”

Edwards made his comments a day after he and the two Republicans jousted in the campaign’s first televised debate, broadcast by Nexstar Media Group and hosted by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

As he did Thursday night, Edwards touted the benefits of the state budget going from deficit to surplus under him, of expanding Medicaid to 450,000 working poor people, of a teacher pay raise – which he noted was the first in a decade – and of changes in a long-existing tax break program that now require companies to show that they will create jobs in exchange for the government giveaways.

On Friday, Edwards also clarified his statement Thursday night that he supports extending a background check “on all commercial” sales of guns. Currently, a loophole excludes such checks when buyers purchase weapons at gun shows.

“I don’t know why you ought to be able to go to a gun show and buy, in a commercial transaction, and not have to” undergo a background check, he said. “It’s something that ought to be relatively easy to have a consensus around,” he said, noting expressions of support from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The three candidates for governor will meet next in a forum on Monday organized by the Press Club of Baton Rouge that won’t be televised. Radio talk show host Jim Engster will host the event at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino at noon.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.