The red-meat rhetoric about John Bel Edwards unleashing thousands of “dangerous thugs” upon Louisiana neighborhoods has settled into the campaign dustbin.

Now, as the governor-elect moves into transition mode, advocates for criminal justice reform in the state with the nation’s biggest per-capita prison population are hoping he’ll breathe life into their ambitious agenda.

Just how aggressive a governor Edwards may be on an issue fraught with political hazards is uncertain. Despite U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s campaign blasts accusing Edwards of a “very, very irresponsible” plan to reduce Louisiana’s prison population by 5,500 inmates, the incoming governor’s plan for how to get there remains thin on specifics.

Edwards has said he settled on the 5,500 figure — which would mean a 14 percent cut in Louisiana’s prison population — because it would pare the state’s incarceration rate to the level of the nation’s second biggest jailer. He cited Mississippi, although federal statistics show the reigning silver medalist is Oklahoma, which imprisons 700 people per 100,000 residents, compared with 816 in Louisiana.

Edwards “certainly indicated a number of times that this was an issue he wanted to address, and he recognized that our status as the leading incarcerator is not a good thing,” said Kevin Kane, of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank that focuses on criminal justice reform in the state. “He really didn’t get into specifics, which didn’t surprise me.”

At the same time, Kane noted, Edwards hails from a family of Tangipahoa Parish sheriffs and won a key endorsement from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, among the state’s most powerful lobbying groups and one that historically has greeted calls for prison reform warily.

Mary-Patricia Wray, spokeswoman for the governor-elect’s transition team, said Edwards has “suggested a comprehensive plan” to reduce the prison population through treatment options for nonviolent offenders.

“His plan would increase pre-trial diversion programs, reform sentencing for nonviolent offenders and increase the use of specialty courts, among other things,” Wray said in an emailed statement, claiming an estimated $40 million in savings would result.

‘Proven strategies’

In a recent interview with The Advocate, Edwards pointed to sobriety, drug courts and programs for the mentally ill and veterans as promising ways to shrink an inmate population that the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics pegged at about 38,000 last year.

“We have to look at proven strategies that have been implemented elsewhere,” Edwards said.

For now, that appears to be as far as the plan goes.

Behind the scenes, the Edwards camp has voiced support for a task force created by the Legislature this year that is scheduled in March to launch an intensive, data-driven review of state sentencing and corrections issues, Kane said.

The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force will include appointees of the governor, the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, leaders of both legislative houses, the head of the state Department of Corrections, the sheriffs association, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and others.

The aim is to tee up a comprehensive reform package for the 2017 legislative session, eschewing a piecemeal approach that has seen limited results in easing prison counts that doubled over two decades. Louisiana’s convicted prisoner population has declined only 4 percent since 2009, federal figures show.

It’s a playbook that other Southern states have employed, with varying degrees of success. Mississippi, for one, saw its prison population shrink by 14.5 percent last year in the immediate wake of a raft of reforms passed by state lawmakers there.

Reform advocates also point to Texas, which launched reforms in 2007 that included beefed-up drug treatment, more diversion programs and other alternatives to prison. Since then, Texas has seen a reversal of a skyward trend in its prison population, while crime rates also have fallen.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has been lukewarm when it comes to criminal justice reform, Kane said, only agreeing not to oppose some recent legislation.

“For somebody to advance this task force, it has to be a higher priority than it was for Jindal,” Kane said. “Really, our primary hope was that the next governor, whoever that was going to be, would embrace this task force.”

Mandate for change?

The U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan advocacy group, last week released poll numbers suggesting Louisiana voters favor significant change. The poll of 500 likely voters found that 27 percent think Louisiana needs a “complete overhaul” of its criminal justice system, while another 29 percent favored “major reform.” About one in four respondents supported minor reform, while 14 percent said the system “is working pretty well as it is.”

More than half said they “strongly” support replacing mandatory minimum sentences with “sentencing ranges so that judges can weigh the individual circumstances of each case, such as seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history, when determining the penalty.” Another 27 percent “somewhat” favored that idea.

According to the pollster, half of the respondents identified themselves as conservatives. More than half were 55 or older.

Holly Harris, the organization’s executive director, declared the results to be an “overwhelming mandate” for Louisiana prison reform, although the poll did not ask voters about more specific prisoner-reduction measures.

In many states, conservatives have led prison reform efforts, particularly in the South, although lately the ground has shifted somewhat, Harris said.

“It seems like it’s become more political, with conservatives feeling they need to revert to the tough-on-crime rhetoric,” she said. “It’s empty. It’s hollow. It may be because the president is now weighing in on justice reform. In truth, he’s a bit late to the party, and maybe that’s complicating things for conservatives.”

Harris, a former legal counsel for the Republican Party of Kentucky, was referring to the Obama administration’s recent move to release some 6,000 federal inmates early through a downshift in federal sentencing calculations for drug offenders.

Vitter’s campaign ran a controversial TV ad toggling between President Obama’s face and that of Edwards, and warning in ominous tones about the threat of rampant prisoner releases in Louisiana. Edwards countered with an ad featuring the sheriffs of Calcasieu, Rapides, St. Bernard and West Baton Rouge parishes — all Democrats — pushing back against what they described as dangerous fear-mongering.

Visceral responses

“This race was a very interesting experiment for justice reform, really the first time the issue has been put front-and-center,” Harris said. “It was a big chunk of this race, and the tough-on-crime stuff didn’t move the dial at all. It did nothing for Vitter.”

Vitter’s fade at the ballot box went well beyond policy issues, however, and one expert said such reforms remain a tough public sell, despite the election outcome and growing evidence that locking up more people fails both public safety and fiscal tests.

“Our pulses rise when we are faced with the threat of criminals on the street, or Syrian refugees. Those are very powerful images, and people respond to them viscerally, which is one of the difficulties of reforming this area,” said University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross. “Most of the facts are on one side, and most of the emotions are on the other.”

Still, Pearson expects Edwards to make good on his pledge, buoyed by his law enforcement bloodlines and interest from across the political spectrum.

“Republicans and Democrats alike are saying that we put too many people in jail. It doesn’t necessarily make us better. It just makes families poorer and means we spend more money uselessly on a government program,” Pearson said. “It’s easier for John Bel Edwards — as a Democrat with his key supporters, but also coming from a law enforcement background — to make the claim we need to take a look at this stuff.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.