In the final week of a frustrating and largely fruitless legislative session, lawmakers adopted a symbolic resolution to “affirm the need for civility in political discourse.”
They also did something meaningful: Approving a bipartisan package of bills that should knock Louisiana off its ranking as American’s incarceration leader.
The 2017 session may best be remembered for the failure of the Legislature to do anything about the fact that Louisiana will be broke a year from now, when more than $1 billion in temporary sales taxes and other short-term taxes expire.
But the passage of the sprawling 10-bill incarceration package may prove more consequential. It is the boldest change of direction for Louisiana since the reform of New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina.
The reforms are projected to save Louisiana a quarter-billion dollars over the next decade, of which 70 percent will be obligated to programs that rehabilitate offenders and support victims.
Most significantly, the 10 bills substantially overhaul the state criminal codes, reducing mandatory minimums, trimming sentences and expanding parole eligibility. Put off, until next year, is a more comprehensive assessment of felony sentences; Louisiana is still somewhat behind the curve of Southern states working to reduce jail populations at the front end, as well as improving outcomes when offenders finish their sentences.
Approval of the 10 measures this week, though, is an illustration of what can happen when citizens and lawmakers approach Louisiana’s most vexing problems collaboratively.
Legislators vied for the privilege of sponsoring the bills. Most were sponsored by members of the Republican majority, but two were handed over to well-regarded Democrats, and one was handled by an independent.
The effort was aided by support from Louisiana’s three political tribes: Democrats, small-government Republicans and religious conservatives. They hung together when district attorneys and sheriffs — some of whom benefit financially from housing state inmates — pushed back against the changes. In the end, compromises preserved enough of the reforms that Louisiana should finally slip behind Oklahoma on the incarceration hit parade. Gov. John Bel Edwards, who hails from a family of Tangipahoa Parish sheriffs, played a constructive role and fulfilled a campaign promise.
The legislative package represents a meaningful alternative to Louisiana’s culture of punishments and penitentiaries. And getting it approved involved some tough votes: One of the measures lets some convicts collect food stamps and another eases child support obligations — all in the name of helping offenders get back on their feet after release.
Louisiana has a stubborn crime problem. But after nearly two decades as the nation’s leading jailer, it should be clear that we’re not solving it by locking up nearly a percent of our population in an archipelago of incarceration that stretches from Shreveport to Chalmette.
We owe it to ourselves to try something new.