After years of Louisiana being labeled the No. 1 incarcerator in the nation, state Republicans and Democrats came together to fix its criminal justice system. Patterned after reforms enacted in other states such as Georgia, Texas and Utah, the legislative package was designed to improve public safety in the Pelican State while reducing bulging prison populations. Criminal justice reforms have worked in these other deep red states, and they're working in Louisiana.
Unfortunately, amidst a hotly contested gubernatorial race, some old-school politicians are campaigning against the reforms. They are trotting out tired old lines about crime and criminals and attacking the reforms that conservatives support in Louisiana and across the country.
The tough-on-crime rhetoric used by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden to push their disastrous 1994 “crime bill” feels stale 25 years later when poached by GOP critics of justice reform. And it should. Data from states that have reformed their justice systems along the lines of the Louisiana legislation shows that we can cut crime and reduce incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders at the same time. With savings from having fewer people in prison, we are able provide programming proven to keep offenders from returning to a life of crime. And make no mistake: reducing recidivism makes Louisiana communities safer.
Another benefit is that a portion of savings generated by the reforms can also be dedicated to fund violent crimes task forces, human trafficking investigations, and more cops on the street.
Taken together, these reforms work wherever they are implemented. And the voters get it. The only surprise is that a few cynical politicians think Louisianans aren’t smart enough to understand that the reforms focused on nonviolent offenders. (Those convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses were specifically excluded from any benefits of the reforms.) These politicians hope voters will unquestioningly embrace the tripe spewing from their campaigns. But they’re wrong.
The detractors of Louisiana justice reform also fail to acknowledge that the Legislature approved the measures with major bipartisan votes. And they underestimate the voters, who know better, and remain strongly supportive.
In a Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted just last year, 92% of Louisiana voters voiced their support for offering more rehabilitation and job-training programs for low-level, nonviolent offenders with the goal of reducing recidivism rates. Fully 85% support reducing prison sentences for these types of offenders in conjunction with improving the probation and parole systems so that families can be reunited sooner and the process of reintegrating back into civilian life can begin more quickly without sacrificing public safety. Paying court fines and fees had become a Kafkaesque nightmare that trapped thousands in debt with no way to escape. Eighty-three percent of Louisianians stated that they support streamlining the process to make it easier for people to pay their fee debts on time.
What is more surprising is to see these politicians failing to follow Donald Trump’s lead. Just last year, the president pushed through Congress his signature achievement: the First Step Act. Working with Democrats and Republicans, law enforcement and civil rights groups, faith and business communities, and even some celebrities, Trump got Congress to approve the largest overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in decades.
The Trump bill has allowed thousands of nonviolent offenders to achieve redemption, forgiveness, and a second chance at life without sacrificing public safety. The reforms in place in Louisiana are not dissimilar to those contained in the president’s federal bill. It’s no wonder that most Louisianans continue to support the criminal justice reform package. After all, if Donald Trump supports this approach, why shouldn’t the voters in Louisiana?
Typically, candidates looking to win statewide office would use a bipartisan issue like criminal justice reform to show their policy chops and their willingness to work across party lines. Unfortunately for Louisianans, justice reform-bashers have embraced a theme that divides rather than unifies, using some of the most cynical language possible. It is not only dishonest; it ignores the truth about what the reforms actually did. And it is a losing strategy that will be rejected by the voters.
Based in Washington, D.C. David Safavian serves as general counsel at the American Conservative Union Foundation.