The yearlong push for criminal justice reform in Louisiana will reach a critical point this week when a state Senate committee considers a handful of bills that reverse decades of overreaction to nonviolent crimes. It's a small but vitally important step, and it's encouraging that opposing sides are finding common ground.
Crime and justice are always hot-button issues, but effectively dealing with incarceration and rehabilitation requires a clear head — and politicians with the guts to stand up for what's right in the face of demagogues who will assail them for being "soft on crime."
Several lawmakers stand out as examples of that kind of courage: Sens. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, and Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego; Reps. Walt Leger and Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans; Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna; Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma; Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; and Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro. They are sponsoring the reform bills this year.
It's significant that leading members of the state's business and religious communities support the reform bills, as do some of the state's most prominent conservative voices. Credit should also go to Louisiana's sheriffs and DAs, who previously opposed virtually every effort at sentencing reform, for agreeing to back sensible changes to the handling of nonviolent criminals. The bills up for consideration this week will not free violent criminals, but they will save taxpayers money.
As for the "soft on crime" meme, a mountain of evidence proves that the bills taking center stage this week are "smart on crime," not soft on crime.
"We don't have twice as many criminals as everybody else," says Martiny, who's running for the Jefferson Parish Council with the support of many in law enforcement. "We just have twice as many people in jail as everybody else. The easiest thing for me to do politically is punt on this, but we have to admit that one of the main reasons we're in trouble fiscally is because we keep looking to higher ed and health care when it's time to cut. We never consider cutting corrections, where we spend $700 million a year. It's time to look at how we handle nonviolent offenders."
Marino, a brand-new lawmaker, is a criminal defense attorney who already stands out as a expert — and a voice of reason — on criminal justice reform. "If you don't think that spending $700 million a year on incarceration is a problem, then be OK with us not having money for schools, TOPS and public hospitals," Marino says. "Tough on crime is, unfortunately, tough on education, tough on health care, and tough on the citizens of the state of Louisiana."
The bills under consideration this week likely will be amended to focus on how we prosecute and incarcerate for nonviolent crimes. There now appears to be consensus that such reforms would free up money for programs like drug courts, which have turned nonviolent offenders into law-abiding taxpayers.
Sentencing reforms also will save taxpayers money — hopefully enough to fund TOPS, health care and rehabilitation programs that work.
That's smart on crime, not soft on crime.