BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In a session mired by feuds over the budget and taxes and a divisive debate over Confederate monuments, Louisiana’s Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders shared one major achievement: uniting their parties to overhaul the state’s notoriously harsh approach to the sentencing and rehabilitation of criminals.
Surrounded by a bipartisan group of beaming lawmakers, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed 10 bills on Thursday that he said represent the most extensive criminal justice reforms in state history, changes that should enable Louisiana to relinquish its unwanted status as the “incarceration capital of the world.”
The new laws expand probation and parole opportunities and shrink sentences, mainly for non-violent offenders. They also ease financial burdens inmates face upon release. Lawmakers hope these and other changes will make it less likely that ex-offenders will return to lives of crime.
“Let us remember that this is the day that we chose to build something better,” Edwards said as lawmakers embraced each other and posed for selfies with jubilant activists, with a live jazz band playing for the occasion.
The new laws challenge the agenda of President Donald Trump’s Justice Department. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently called on federal prosecutors to seek maximum sentences, even for low-level drug offenders. More Louisiana inmates are serving time for drug possession than any other crime.
But lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature seemed less focused on federal pressure than state budget concerns, and a shared belief that Louisiana’s “tough-on-crime” mentality has not been effective.
“States are swimming in the other direction,” said Adam Gelb of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which assisted the task force. “They’ve digested the research about what policies provide the best public safety return on investment and they’ve seen their neighbors succeed in reducing crime and incarceration at the same time.”
Louisiana spends about $700 million annually on correctional costs, a huge bill for a state that has struggled through repeated deficits over nearly a decade.
Approximately 0.81 percent of Louisiana’s population is behind bars, nearly double the national average. Louisiana and Florida have similar crime rates, but Louisiana incarcerates people for non-violent offenses at nearly three times the rate of Florida.
“Everybody recognized that we had a real problem,” said Republican Rep. Tanner Magee, who sponsored one of the bills.
After examining recently enacted reforms in Texas and Georgia, the task force concluded that Louisiana could reduce its prison population without harming public safety.
Lawmakers from both parties met nearly every day of the recently concluded regular session to discuss the finer details with district attorneys, judges, victims’ advocates, corrections officials and various other stakeholders.
“They set their anecdotes and fears aside, and they looked at facts,” Edwards said.
Still, Magee and other sponsors said they didn’t expect their colleagues to approve all 10 pieces of legislation.
Crucial to their passage was the backing of a wide-ranging collection of advocates, including faith-based groups, a conservative business coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. District attorneys also came on board, reversing their initial resistance after persuading lawmakers not to ease up on violent criminals and sex offenders.
Edwards, tongue in cheek, prompted laughter at the signing ceremony when he marveled that conservative and liberal interest groups could come together on these reforms.
Once some key changes begin taking effect on Nov. 1, Edwards predicts Louisiana’s prison population will begin falling, by as much as 10 percent over the next decade, resulting in millions in savings each year and achieving his goal of making Louisiana no longer have the nation’s highest incarceration rate.
Seventy percent of the estimated $262 million in savings over the next 10 years will have to be reinvested in treatment and training programs to keep people from returning to prison, under another one of the laws.
“I know we’re on the right road,” said Republican Sen. Danny Martiny, who called passage of the measures his greatest accomplishment in 23 years as a lawmaker. “We won’t know (their full effects) until we get further down the line, but the important thing is that we’ve stopped the bleeding.”
House Bills 116, 249, 489, 519, 680 681 and Senate Bills 16, 139, 220, 221: www.legis.la.gov