Criminal justice reform was among the few bright spots in last year's dispiriting legislative session. Lawmakers adopted far-reaching laws that traded "tough on crime" grandstanding for "smart on crime" policies that have been proven to work.
The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a nonpartisan coalition of conservatives, liberals, clergy, judges, law enforcement, business people and civic leaders, spent a year developing legislation that streamlined Louisiana's hodgepodge sentencing laws. The reforms were enacted with broad bipartisan support.
Many leading Republicans supported — and still support — criminal justice reform. A handful of ambitious demagogues are now attacking it with lies and scare tactics, not because they care about public safety but because they hope to grab cheap headlines and run for another office. U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy, who can't seem to stop running for something, is the most glaring (and shameless) example.
What's particularly shameful is the timing of their efforts — the reform package took effect only months ago.
For decades, Louisiana lawmakers were intoxicated with the notion of locking up criminals. Now we spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year jailing nonviolent offenders, yet our crime rate remains high.
There are other costs. Eventually, the vast majority of offenders gets released. And when they get back on the street, guess what? Many of them carry a lot of anger, frustration and hopelessness, especially if no opportunities await them. The results are predictable, and measurable.
No other state addresses crime like Louisiana. Our state leads the world in incarceration rates and has a ridiculously high recidivism rate. The two are related. That's why last year's reforms were so groundbreaking — and why efforts to roll back those gains this year, before the reforms have had a chance to bear fruit, are so disappointing.
The worst example is House Bill 195 by Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee. Mack's HB 195, brought at the behest of district attorneys, guts one of the most crucial reforms, the one reducing the maximum probation time from five years to three.
Mack's bill doesn't just roll back the reform; it replaces it with a system that's even worse than the old one. Specifically, it would reinstate the five-year maximum and force probation officers to spend endless hours writing reports and sitting in courtrooms, to little effect.
If the reforms enacted last year are given a chance to work, they will redirect millions of dollars toward reducing the number of offenders assigned to each probation officer. Lower caseloads lead to better results by lowering recidivism, which improves public safety.
"Probation officers are now just starting to see their high workloads begin to go down, which is a very positive thing," says Gretna state Rep. Joe Marino, a criminal lawyer who shepherded most of the reform measures last year. "Now some legislators want to reverse course and pile on — without giving the reforms a chance to work."
This is not the time for lawmakers to chicken out on criminal justice reform. If they do, the chickens will come home to roost among their constituents — and soon.