When some of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate join with the most liberal wing in the body, maybe there is a general agreement on a subject. But the Senate has always been a place where dissents are heard, and U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana is not one to be quiet about a subject he cares about.
He and a younger conservative, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, were the principal dissidents when the Senate voted 87-12 for a bipartisan overhaul of federal criminal laws.
Dissent is an honorable thing, but we wonder if the senators are not wrong about the majority’s view.
It quickly became an issue back home for Kennedy: During the governor’s recent call-in radio show, John Bel Edwards took a jab at Kennedy’s stance on the reforms and praised U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, for his support.
"You know, 87-12, I think Sen. Kennedy is backwards on this," Edwards said, referring to the lopsided margin of the U.S. Senate vote. "I think Senator Kennedy got it wrong."
We do too. And that is not because the concerns of Kennedy and Cotton are wildly off the beam. Whenever one adjusts sentencing guidelines — one of the effects of the new Senate bill — there’s a chance that getting the big issues right might also lead to mistakes in particular cases. The bill seeks to give judges more discretion in some instances, and that might backfire once in a while.
That’s true of all criminal justice reform efforts, including the responsible and rightly praised efforts of Edwards and a bipartisan group of legislators who in 2017 overhauled Louisiana’s corrections laws.
Should the perfect be the enemy of the good?
An unusual coalition of right- and left-wing groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union, conservative religious group like the Family Research Council and influential business associations — backed Louisiana’s overhaul and also lined up behind the federal First Step Act. President Donald Trump, whose adviser Jared Kushner has worked with Edwards on these issues, has pledged to sign a bill that reaches his desk.
Months of efforts and hearings on Capitol Hill created a consensus for the new federal bill, just as months of in-depth meetings in the State Capitol preceded Louisiana’s 10-bill package of justice reforms in 2017.
The U.S. Senate was right to move forward on this. The House later passed the bill by a vote of 358-36, with five of six Louisiana members of the House voting for it. While we do not downplay concerns of Kennedy and Cotton, the facts as well as the large majority of senators and representatives support the bill they opposed. We think one of our senators, and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, with his “no” vote got this wrong.