While the Trump administration in Washington lives in a seemingly permanent state of controversy, a positive outcome for policy should get more attention: The president and allies at the congressional and state level are working toward new versions of prison and sentencing reforms.
One of the president’s allies in the movement is Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, a Democrat who has met several times with White House officials and other governors about the historic 2017 reform package passed by the Louisiana Legislature.
And in a wonder worthy of a Christmas story, these efforts are bipartisan across the country, involving liberal and conservative legislators and officials of differing administrations in Washington and the state capitals.
The 2017 reforms in Louisiana generally tracked the efforts in other Southern states to seek to steer nonviolent offenders from jails, as well as putting new emphasis — and money — on literacy and job training in prisons. Our leaders followed those of Texas and other states. Legal systems are, of course, somewhat different from state to state.
But there are common goals of this nationwide movement: “We are convinced that the reforms our states have instituted will make our communities safer, provide a second chance to many who made mistakes early in life and save our taxpayers money. That's a win-win-win.”
That statement was in Governing magazine from Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota and former Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a Republican and a Democrat respectively.
Those are solid goals that we believe the Louisiana changes will achieve over time. Importantly, though, it is vital that legislators use savings from the prison reforms to invest in literacy and job training before release of offenders.
While state reforms are positive, and that is where most of the action is in terms of law enforcement and corrections, a wide-ranging bill in Congress would seek to make changes in federal sentencing laws. It’s a complex subject, but there are long-standing problems that a reform bill seeks to address.
Those include widely differing sentences for possession of differing drugs, particularly for crack cocaine, the latter leading to many long prison terms for young black men. “We got the crack cocaine epidemic all wrong,” says Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, because officials shortchanged treatment for offenders.
The federal bill does not enjoy unanimous support, as few of these initiatives do. Louisiana’s two Republican U.S. senators are split, with John N. Kennedy of Madisonville against it and Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge expressing his support. While we appreciate Kennedy’s concerns, we urge him to take another look at this effort.
With the clock winding down in Congress, this issue likely will not be finished and tied up with a bow before Christmas. Over time, though, federal changes ought to be in tune with the efforts of states like Louisiana to achieve win-win-win improvements in corrections.