KingsleyHouse (copy)

State Sen. Danny Martiny

A weekend of tough negotiations has produced a compromise package of bills that represent a constructive effort to tackle Louisiana's bloated prison population.

We hope that legislators in the House will pass three key measures that almost sailed through the Senate Tuesday, as well as the less controversial parts of the 10- bill package working through the session.

The broad goal is to reduce sentences in line with national norms, or to make parole available to deserving inmates who might be able to return to society as productive citizens instead of charges on the taxpayer.

The means include not only better education and workforce training in state prisons and parish jails, but also making pardon and parole work better. That costs money, and in today's world you must get the cash by reducing inmate populations smartly.

Louisiana is No. 1 in its incarceration rate, by a long shot. We can do better for the taxpayer and for genuinely rehabilitated offenders by following the lead of many Southern states in embracing the proposals of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force. These are tried methods and systems from other states, not fanciful theories.

They deserve legislative support and are starting to get more traction because of the compromise talks.

Still, the public ought to be worried that Louisiana is so late to the party of criminal justice reforms.

Nor is it encouraging that exhaustive compromise negotiations in the Legislature were required. The original bills, blessed by the large majority of members of the bipartisan task force, were ambushed in a late-blooming political offensive by district attorneys and sheriffs, some of whom finance their operations with per-diem allocations for keeping state inmates. That resulted in watered-down versions of proposed changes in parole policies, and also in sentencing reforms. In their original form, these proposals weren't radical measures but were in line with changes made in other conservative states.

The ideal of data-driven policy crashed into Louisiana politics, but the deal brokered by Gov. John Bel Edwards reflects real gains. The three Senate bills by the body's president, John Alario, R-Westwego, and by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, rewrite sentences for most drug offenses — reducing penalties for low-level drug possession and scaling prison terms based on the amount of drugs involved — and overhaul the state's numerous theft statutes.

The bills also reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and allow judges to sentence a wider range of people to probation instead of prison.

More must be done. For example, at least a one-year delay in implementing more thoughtful sentencing reforms means that there is a lot left to be accomplished by this year's unusual alliance of business leaders, Christian conservatives and liberal groups.

They have to keep at it, just as Edwards has to work administratively with sheriffs and others in the system to make polices into practices in Louisiana's sprawling empire of punishment that has too often not fit the crime.