There’s a reason Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks of one of his proudest accomplishments, the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, in terms of how many Louisianans are benefiting.
For all the partisan fighting that has played out over the expansion — and continued to last week, as potential Edwards challenger, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, made it an issue during the big fiscal debate and Edwards lashed back — there’s real rhetorical power in the raw numbers.
Consider the latest totals from the state Department of Health. A total of 477, 889 people, mostly working poor, have enrolled. There have been 43,600 breast cancer screenings, resulting in 411 diagnoses; 8,444 people have been diagnosed with diabetes, and 22,502 have been diagnosed with hypertension and are being treated. Nearly 70,000 are receiving mental health services, either inpatient or outpatient, and nearly 22,000 are getting help for substance abuse. That’s an awful lot of lives improved, if not saved.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Edwards takes to talking about the term’s other big accomplishment so far, criminal justice reform, the same way.
Much has been said, and written, about the unusual bipartisan coalition that came together last year to try to reduce Louisiana’s mass incarceration rate, long the highest in the nation. And it was big news when the governor recently announced that Oklahoma has now passed Louisiana on the list.
It took a lot to turn this train around, to make lawmakers who’d once supported the toughest sentencing laws in the country see that the cost of locking up so many people, both financially and morally, is too high and that prior policies haven’t made the state safe. It took a lot to convince them to assume the political risk of being labeled soft on crime, which certainly has happened plenty of times before, even in former U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s campaign against Edwards for governor. How ironic that Vitter, now a lobbyist, later showed up as an advocate on behalf of reform.
Still, for all the politics that have surrounded the issue, there was something starkly powerful in the first status report since criminal justice reform took effect, which was released last week.
According to the state’s preliminary data, Louisiana had a prison population of about 40,000 in 2012, but that number’s now down to 33,000, the lowest in 20 years. The report shows that the drop is among people convicted of property and drug crimes, not violent offenses; there’s been a 20 percent decrease in the number of people locked up for nonviolent crimes, and a 42 percent drop in the total serving time for drug possession.
Think about that for a minute. That’s about 7,000 fewer people locked up at taxpayer expense, 7,000 more people who have the chance to build productive lives. Not all will take that chance but many will, and their communities will be the better for it.
The report also showed fewer people are being sent back to prison after having their outside supervision revoked, and fewer first-time offenders are being sent away in the first place. And fewer are under probation or parole, which officials attribute to improved good behavior incentives and better monitoring due to reduced caseloads. Another finding is that the legal changes have reduced the average sentence for non-violent crimes.
There’s more, but you get the idea. The bottom line is that package of bills is working as intended in terms of the overall incarceration numbers, and it’s also saving money, $14 million so far, much of it slated to be reinvested in programs aimed at keeping people out of prison.
There hasn’t been much good news out of the state Capitol in recent years, and many people, myself included, have sharply criticized the Legislature for its long-running inability to address major fiscal matters until a deal finally came together last week.
But Edwards and his legislative allies did something here, and it’s making a difference. The numbers tell the story.