I think we can all agree that a Louisiana politician talking about prison is infinitely better than a Louisiana politician in prison. And in that spirit, you’re going to be hearing and seeing our elected class at the State Capitol talking in abundance about crime, incarceration and related issues in 2017, possibly more so than in any other year in recent memory.
That’s because criminal justice reform is supposedly coming to Baton Rouge. But that word — reform — is often tossed around a little too freely. Elected officials and bureaucrats use the word to inflate their policy initiatives or they attach it to what are otherwise minor legislative accomplishments. This time, however, a true reform movement may be exactly what’s starting to shape up.
A criminal justice overhaul was something Gov. John Bel Edwards campaigned on last year and his administration has targeted 2017 for making strides. State Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc has even been traveling around the state over the past several months discussing ways to decrease the number of people in prison in Louisiana.
It won’t be a new topic at the Capitol. Lawmakers for years have tried with varying degrees of success to address perceived problems with the way mandatory minimum sentences are handed out and how much discretion judges should receive.
Throughout it all, one obstacle has always surfaced: representatives and senators from conservative districts prefer to cast votes that make them appear to be tough on crime. While a lawmaker might find some logic in lessening sentences for non-violent offenders, they also know it’s a political risk since an opponent can easily send out a mailer making it look like the incumbent let everyone out of jail.
But conservative lawmakers who once looked upon these issues with equal parts sympathy and political trepidation could find cover in 2017 from some unlikely sources — or at least sources that traditionally don’t wade into such dialogues.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the more influential voices at the Capitol, partnered with Greater New Orleans Inc. and the U.S. Chamber last month to hold an “inaugural” criminal justice reform summit. Participants discussed different ways the state could reduce crime while saving money, they had conversations about prioritizing public investments in the justice system and floated possible solutions for creating more employment opportunities for former inmates.
What will be key moving forward is where the different groups locked onto criminal justice reform can agree. Because compromises will ultimately define this movement — or sink it.
The stars last aligned for this policy topic in the early 2000s, when defense attorneys, judges, district attorneys and victims groups worked calmly together to try and ease the pressure of a booming prison population. Alas, within five years or so, lawmakers starting rolling back some of the changes that were enacted. The Legislature continued the practice of creating new crimes and increasing mandatory minimum sentences.
Those involved in the big push to come should give some thought to what happens after the next legislative session ends. How do you ensure that any reforms achieved aren’t chiseled away in the years to follow?
It’s surprising that the Edwards administration and the legislative leadership are willing to go down this road in 2017. The year will already be busy enough, with state revenue falling, another troubled budget to craft and hefty tax proposals on the table.
In addition to this fiscal drama, lawmakers will hear from attorneys who are being stretched too thin because more defendants are choosing to roll the dice and go to trial. They’ll hear from judges who want more discretion and district attorneys who need as many tools as possible at their disposal. Victims groups will want to make sure there’s still a sense of justice in the system and prison operators will surely have a thought or two to share.
But at the end of the day, how do you get over the real political rub — that no elected official will want to be viewed as soft on crime?
Despite how divisive that question could become, there is an undeniable sense of “Kumbaya” in the air this holiday season. In addition to LABI, the Louisiana Family Forum is working on criminal justice issues too. LFF is another influential group at the Capitol that is sometimes at odds with the Edwards administration. Their efforts will add a faith-based argument to the debates to come, which shows just how rounded those talks will be next year.
The fact that this particular policy area is on the radar for so many different political factions is a good thing. But it will all mean nothing if a set of compromises can’t be reached over the next few months. Then again, true reforms are never easy.