We’ve learned what Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards does to opponents of his signature criminal justice initiative. Now we’ll find out how he treats its friends.
Last month, a panel of legislators approved using $8.5 million saved from 2017’s criminal justice changes for new programs to cut the recidivism rate. These changes reduced the state’s imprisoned population and related costs. Legally, 70 percent of the savings must go to rehabilitation efforts.
Unfortunately, the justice reform initiative did things in reverse. Logically, programs to help keep freed inmates out of prison should have kicked in before they got out. And with sentencing changes diverting more of those convicted away from jail, measures to keep them on the straight and narrow also need beefing up.
The initiative fulfilled an Edwards campaign pledge to cut the number of those incarcerated by 5,500 so the state would no longer reign as the country’s biggest per capita jailer. But critics of the cart-before-the-horse approach, of which the most vocal might be Republican Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, repeatedly and publicly pointed out that the governor was putting a campaign promise ahead of public safety.
Prator also complained the sentencing changes put dangerous criminals on the street. Perhaps not coincidentally, Edwards rejected the nomination of Prator’s wife Carolyn to sit on a state board. When the administration claimed the denial came from a paperwork issue, Prator produced a convincing trail of evidence contradicting that assertion.
Prator, northwest Louisiana’s most powerful politician, isn’t someone Edwards should cross lightly. That may cause political damage, but Edwards also has the chance to win friends by how he uses proceeds from the justice reform plan.
Cartoonist Brian Spellman once wrote, "Don't hold grudges. Life's too long." Gov. John Bel Edwards might disagree. The governor seems fond of …
Almost a third of the savings will go to groups inside and outside of government for anti-recidivism efforts. Will the choices reflect best practices or politics? Unreassuringly, the state already has said it would relax requirements to allow organizations that might not qualify under more stringent criteria to compete for these grants, which could send largesse to groups generally supportive of Edwards.
Edwards can steer the money toward local programs run by courthouse gangs that delivered him votes when he ran for governor. The administration said it would concentrate the rehab programs in parishes with large populations — Jefferson, Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Caddo, and St. Tammany. However, as the reform is envisioned, sheriffs in "nearby" parishes also will be eligible for this money. It’ll be interesting to see just how geographically close “nearby” ends up being (and especially how much Caddo receives).
Finally, a variety of local and state agencies will receive the remaining funds set aside for victim services. When budgets go up in affected agencies, it can’t hurt the reelection efforts of the politician seen as responsible. The distribution of these funds among clerks of court as well as the amount that goes to the governor's proposed rehabilitation and "family justice center" in Baton Rouge will bear watching.
No doubt Edwards will want to leverage political advantage out of this trough of dollars, but sunshine can prevent politics from overwhelming good policy. Legislators tasked with reviewing the initiative’s outcomes should insist on full transparency, which would help in comparing the winning and losing proposals. Lawmakers should also demand rigorous evaluation standards for all the efforts. A body created by Edwards that could perform such evaluations seems unlikely to do so.
The governor should spread this money responsibly — even if that means funding worthy programs run by Prator.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.