The coronavirus-shortened legislative session that ended last week had a lot of low points: the partisan shenanigans; the decision by the Legislature’s new leaders to plow ahead with divisive, non-emergency legislation, even though participation from the public and even some lawmakers from vulnerable groups was limited; and finally, the failure to pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins next month, which gave those same lawmakers an opening to call themselves into special session and tackle still more controversial bills.
Yet there were some under-radar bright spots as well. One was that, despite the heightened tension, lawmakers from opposite ideological corners once again came together to pass criminal justice legislation.
This has been a trend for several years now, with Democrats and Republicans — and their diverse electoral constituencies, from social justice advocates to libertarians and religious conservatives — recognizing that Louisiana’s tough-on-crime policies and nation-leading mass incarceration have cost too much, ruined too many lives, and devastated too many communities and families without making Louisiana safer. Again this year, policies to reduce the prison population, alleviate inhumane conditions and help those who’ve been released reenter society won broad support from politicians who know their votes could come back to bite them come election time.
Among the bills passed and heading to Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk:
- House Bill 173 by state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, which expands parole eligibility for certain juvenile offenders.
- House Bill 529 by state Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, which entitles people who've been incarcerated to documentation verifying that they've served their time.
- House Bill 344 by state Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, which bans solitary confinement in most cases for inmates who are pregnant, who recently gave birth or who are caring for children while in custody.
- House Bill 643 by state Rep. Frederick Jones, D-Monroe, which allows for reduced parole supervision after a period of time.
- House Bill 77, by state Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, which allows probation and parole officers to check in with those under their supervision electronically rather than in person.
- Senate Bill 354, by state Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, which could help former inmates find work by mandating that their state-issued photo ID identify licensing and certification programs they completed while incarcerated.
And a series of bills by James and state Rep. Joseph Marino III, No Party-Gretna, which address difficulties facing people who seek to have their records expunged.
These bills are incremental in nature, and don’t tackle huge challenges faced by the criminal justice system such as how to adequately fund public defender offices. But they move Louisiana in the right direction, toward compassion and support for second chances. Many passed by huge margins, and some attracted unanimous support.
The diverse coalition supporting efforts like these has been one of the most heartening developments in Louisiana politics in a long time.
Now if only this sort of courage and common sense could bleed into other areas.