Our Views: More GOP backing for prison reforms is good news

ADVOCATE EDITORIAL | Apr 27, 2019 - 6:00 am

There is more good news about not just the results of criminal justice reforms in Louisiana, but the political perception of the changes.

A new Louisiana Survey found support growing for the historic 2017 legislation, backed by Republicans as well as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The reforms garnered 70 percent support among Louisiana residents in the fifth of six reports from the 2019 Louisiana Survey. That's a jump from 61 percent in 2018.

The state is still the most prolific jailer of its residents, based on a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, even as the prison population went down. The data are for 2017, so the reforms of that year's legislative action are still a work in progress. 

"Unfortunately, Louisiana bears this shameful title once again," said attorney Jamila Johnson of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nevertheless, in today’s increasingly combative political environment, the Louisiana Survey is good news.

The survey, conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, polled 917 Louisianans from Feb. 15 to March 7, and has a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.

The prison reforms were backed by a growing share of Louisiana Republicans, up 14 percentage points from last year, and Independents, up 12 percentage points.

That result was applauded by the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which has strongly supported the “right on crime” movement among conservatives. Key legislators have worked with Pelican leaders, particularly the late Kevin Kane, on new approaches to improve both public safety and the outcomes when inmates return to society.

Only a tiny fraction of prisoners will stay in jail for life, although Louisiana has a high number of lifers compared to other states. When an inmate is released without a job skill and education, that's an almost certain returnee to prisons.

As Edwards has sometimes drawn criticism from GOP officeholders like Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy of Madisonville over the 2017 laws, the governor was obviously pleased with the poll results.

He called for more efforts to “put people ahead of politics.”

“That is exactly what happened in 2017 when I signed into law the historic reform legislation that happened because of strong support from Republicans, Democrats and Independents," he said. "In addition to losing our title as the incarceration capital of the nation, the first year of our efforts have yielded promising results, including doubling the projected savings."

A win for the taxpayer and a win for public safety is difficult to achieve 100 percent of the time. While some offenders have been released early, mostly nonviolent cases, the process can never be perfect.

We are encouraged, though, by survey findings that show an appreciation for the complex work of reforms undertaken by a Democratic administration with a Republican Legislature, and with backing of liberal and conservative think tanks nationally.

We do need more bipartisan and results-oriented legislation, even if on politically sensitive topics.