The 2017 regular legislative session has been widely - and rightly - criticized for its failure to produce long-term fiscal reform. Yet, despite lawmakers’ failure to work together on fiscal issues, they showed true bipartisanship in succeeding on another, equally important front: criminal justice reform. The long-term impact of that success cannot be overstated.
After decades of pretending to be “tough on crime,” lawmakers finally enacted policies that reflect what enlightened law enforcement leaders have known all along: we cannot jail our way to safety. Spurred by objective data from the Pew Charitable Trust, a yearlong study by the bipartisan Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, and critical support from conservative as well as progressive voices across the state, lawmakers passed a package of 10 bills that significantly overhaul Louisiana’s sentencing, probation, parole and re-entry laws.
[content-1] [jump] The bills signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards - who also supported the reforms - focus on nonviolent offenders. Citizens should keep that in mind if (when) they hear demagogues harping that lawmakers who voted for the reforms were “soft on crime.” As conservative supporters noted from the beginning, the changes represent Louisiana getting “smart on crime.” Here’s why:
• Louisiana spends nearly $700 million a year on prisons, yet our crime rate remains high - and one in three released inmates returns to jail within three years.
• Louisiana leads the nation in imprisonment, with a rate nearly double the national average.
• Louisiana sends a disproportionate number of people to prison for nonviolent offenses, feeding a cycle of recidivism.
Despite Louisiana’s “lock-em-up” political culture, all 10 bills that comprised the reform package passed with strong bipartisan majorities. The reforms are projected to reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million over the next decade. By law, 70 percent of the savings - an estimated $184 million - must be reinvested in programs proven to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime. Equally important, Louisiana by 2018 will lose its longstanding title as the most imprisoned state in the country. Best of all, Louisiana’s new policies will reduce crime along with incarceration rates. All citizens will be safer.
Many business, civic and political leaders played key roles in making the reforms happen, but the unlikeliest hero of this story is one of the Legislature’s newest members, state Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna. The 2017 session was Marino’s first after he won a special election last autumn to succeed former state Rep. Bryan Adams. Marino, the Legislature’s only full-time practicing criminal defense attorney, wasted no time getting to work on the reform package and quickly proved his mettle. In fact, his knowledge of the issues was so thorough that veterans like Senate President John Alario and state Sen. Danny Martiny - who both authored key bills in the package - asked Marino to spearhead testimony when their bills were heard in committee. “Our goal wasn’t just to reduce the prison population,” Marino told Gambit after the bills became law. “Public safety is our main goal. We want prison rates to go down and the crime rate to go down.”
Passage of criminal justice reform showed what’s possible when lawmakers put partisan politics aside for the long-term good of the state. Indeed, bipartisanship is exactly what Louisiana will need if we’re ever to adopt genuine fiscal reform.