With so much going wrong in politics, so many issues on which the two sides are not only at odds but utterly unwilling to even acknowledge potential common ground, criminal justice reform stands out as a rare exception.
We saw that in Louisiana last year, when the Republican-majority Legislature joined with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to pass a criminal justice reinvestment package of bills designed to reduce Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate, give nonviolent offenders a second chance and help heal the communities that a disproportionate share of the people affected call home. The coalition behind the change was genuinely impressive, ranging from social justice advocates on the left to libertarians and religious conservatives on the right. It even included former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Edwards’ runoff opponent, who’d run an intentionally frightening ad opposing it during his losing campaign in 2015.
If anyone has a selfish interest in opposing the constitutional amendment that would require jury convictions in Louisiana to be unanimous, it…
Of note here is that different players may have had different top priorities, but didn’t use that to stoke divisions. It’s perfectly possible to care more about racial disparities and the damage to communities than the high cost to taxpayers of locking so many people up, or vice versa. But it’s also entirely reasonable to believe that both are a problem.
It was easy to see a carry-over effect this year, when the push to change Louisiana’s nearly unique jury rules suddenly became a big cause.
Even the measure’s author, Democratic New Orleans state Sen. JP Morrell, initially thought that proposal to require criminal convictions to be unanimous was a long shot. Yet lawmakers voted to put the question on next month’s statewide ballot with surprisingly little opposition, after airing arguments about the nature of crime, punishment, and fairness that echoed the previous debate over other criminal justice reforms.
Just as important to the issue’s momentum, in hindsight, is that the broad coalition that wound up behind the measure was already basically in place. Relationships and political infrastructure had already been built, and trust and comfort were already established.
And so we once again have major players from different ends of the ideological map on the same side. Some are focusing on the current law’s Jim Crow origins, and evidence that is continues to create harsher outcomes for African-American defendants. Others are zeroing in on the idea of small government; locking up someone while one or two jurors still hold reasonable doubt, the argument goes, is the ultimate government overreach. Again, these beliefs are not mutually exclusive.
There are other examples too. Many of the same groups have backed the “ban the box” movement, which gives ex-offenders a chance to put in a job application, and clear the first hurdle, without disclosing their criminal records up front.
The next step is to see whether most voters are in the same place.
The first test will come in early November, when the constitutional amendment on jury unanimity appears is up for voter approval. There’s little official or interest group-level opposition to it, with the one exception of Attorney General Jeff Landry, but the real measure is what people decide to do in the privacy of the voting booth.
Other tests of the movement’s underlying strength are looming as well.
One could come next year, if U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, decides to run against Edwards for governor. Kennedy has been a critic of criminal justice reform, and he raised it as a potential red flag in his preliminary statement on the gubernatorial race recently. His focus on the issue points to the reform movement’s potential fragility, and pretty much sets up the possibility that he’ll exploit any crimes committed by people who are released early under the new law.
It’s easy to do. All it takes is one frightening, Willie Horton-style story to call the whole premise into question, no matter how many people quietly take advantage of their second chance.
Kennedy’s early volley is a reminder that it takes courage for politicians to support these efforts, despite the risk of attack.
I think so, anyway. We’ll soon know whether most voters do too.
Email Stephanie Grace at firstname.lastname@example.org.