When Louisiana lawmakers gather this week to launch the 2023 regular legislative session, most of them will focus on what they plan do to over the next two months. I hope they’ll also keep in the back of their minds something they already did.
Back in 2017, a majority of legislators joined with Gov. John Bel Edwards to enact a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms that is objectively working.
Substantively, the 2017 reforms were groundbreaking. They aimed to reduce Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration rate and invest the savings in programs to reduce recidivism, and have done just that.
The changes also have evidently retained broad popular support — even as some alarming crime trends sow the ground for politically opportunistic attacks.
The reforms are a remarkable achievement, for several reasons. First, the politicians got it right, which took courage. What also stands out, what made the effort to pass the package so encouraging — and politically fascinating — was that they brought together a coalition of inside players and outside groups that often oppose each other, sometimes aggressively so.
Progressive social justice advocates talked about the racial inequities embedded in sentencing laws, particularly their destructive effect on individuals caught up in the system and on their loved ones and communities. Fiscal conservatives zeroed in on the cost of mass incarceration and the lack of return on that expense, in the form of reduced crime. Religious conservatives focused on restoring families and redeeming those who served their time.
One could be motivated by any of these disparate concerns — or of course, more than one of them — and wind up in the same place, believing that fewer Louisianans who pose no likely danger to others should be locked up.
And that’s exactly what’s happened.
In first five years after the new laws took effect, the state’s prison population went from 35,500 to 27,000. The drop was driven entirely by people convicted of non-violent offenses, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which backed the reforms. The number of people incarcerated in the state for violent offenses actually rose during that period by nearly 1,400, while the total imprisoned for non-violent offenses fell by nearly half.
Pew also reported that more than $100 million has been reinvested in programs to support victims and prevent recidivism, which also is declining.
And an analysis by the libertarian Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which also strongly backed the reforms, found no correlation between reduced incarceration under the new law and higher crime rates.
Just as these reports affirm the policies’ results, a new statewide poll vindicates them in the court of public opinion.
The poll by JMC Analytics, taken for advocates of the reforms, shows that crime is the top concern for voters heading into this fall's elections and that voters are generally unhappy with the state of the criminal justice system.
But on questions more closely linked to the reforms, the poll found little appetite for giving non-violent offenders longer sentences — and much support for helping those who’ve served their time reenter society and find gainful employment.
Louisiana’s not alone in finding a balance here. Nationally, a similar coalition passed a rare bipartisan bill — signed by then-President Donald Trump — that focused on people in the federal system (Louisiana’s reforms apply to those in the state system).
Like the country as a whole, Louisiana politics has degenerated on too many fronts as partisan demagoguery replaced honest attempts to find common ground.
And let’s be honest, common ground isn’t easy here. Fear of violence is real and widespread, and we’ve got plenty of politicians who revel in scoring cheap points.
Yet Louisiana voters — and many of their elected representatives — apparently understand that decades of tough-on-crime laws haven’t made the state safer, that too many lives were being ruined by such laws, and that there’s nothing at all weak about showing mercy.
The lawmakers gathering this week in Baton Rouge should remember that, as old-school tough-on-crime rhetoric emerges in the governor's race and informs some legislative proposals.
It may be too much to hope for, but maybe the same unlikely coalition could coalesce behind other important issues too. As criminal justice reform proved, there's no limit to what people can accomplish when they put their differences aside and find common cause.