DON’T ROLL BACK OUR PROGRESS: AN OPINION
Anyone not living under a rock over the past few years can quickly sense the so-called “national divide” that popular media reminds us daily of. The chasm that has grown since the start of the new millennium is characterized by the sharp political, social, and cultural distinctions that have always defined our rural and urban spaces. These differences manifest themselves in many ways, legislative deadlock included. Our inability to cooperate with one another, empathize with each other’s problems, and commit to seeing life through another’s eyes, has made even the smallest disagreements colossal issues with no clear remedy in sight. This phase – I think of as the post-9/11 malaise – is by no means uniquely American but certainly has hit an already apathetic and disconnected population hard. However, every once and a while I’m rendered speechless by our Federal and state governments ability to accomplish big things.
It was Louisiana’s legislature who passed the state’s largest criminal justice reform package in 2017; a program explicitly designed to tackle Louisiana’s dishonorable title of “most incarcerated.” This progress, ushered in by both major political parties and people from all different advocacy angles was something to be proud of. With annual growth to the corrections system far outpacing the rate of non-violent and violent crime, it only made sense to take on the purge that criminal justice expenses were having on state taxpayers. It also seemed sensible given little observable and achievable output from a system that incarcerated nearly 40,000 people. It made sense that Louisiana legislators would seek to take on this problem, one that happily brought together a diverse coalition of groups from all sides of the political spectrum. The fact that the legislation was co-sponsored through a bi-partisan committee and signed by a Democrat governor speaks to the unity that criminal justice reform can bring to an otherwise chaotic and embattled political scene. I was excited to see the state move past the Bobby Jindal era of statewide deconstruction in public services and thought this would usher in a new momentum of advocacy and action on the part of human service providers, the business community, and policy makers. Reports estimated that the state was poised to save $262 million dollars, cut the prison population 10% by 2027, and further prioritize non-prison alternatives like extended probation and parole
My excitement however has been short lived. Not but one year to the date has Louisiana’s legislator begun rolling back the immense progress it made. During the first weeks of April, the House began voting on laws that would re-establish previously observed operating protocol. This included an extension to probation terms, a request made on behalf of parish sheriffs and District Attorneys across the state. No doubt this and the push for other changes have also been influenced by the state’s large private prison and supplementary service industries. Some have called these changes “updates” or “adjustments,” but additional bills have been authored to increase restitution to crime victims and further enhance parole conditions. Neither of these, if passed, will improve the estimated benefits of the 2017 reform package. This simply makes no sense and frankly, is bad public relations. A recent survey by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University revealed that criminal justice reform is overwhelmingly popular with more than 60% of residents of whom indicated positive approval for the policy changes signed into law in 2017. While I find myself isolated on the island ripe and eager for reform that is New Orleans, I am increasingly frustrated by state leaders who see criminal justice reform as a wedge issue or one that they are neither brave enough to handle or intelligent enough to discuss. I wish to have full confidence in those leading the state in Baton Rouge, but so far, these recent developments fail to inspire. As a member of the Justice and Accountability Center community, the work we do and the people we serve is centered on remediating the terribly harmful effects of a system broken by mass incarceration. People are hungry for reform, not hand-outs. Calibrating our legal institutions to serve people fairly and equally makes both moral and fiscal sense. It is in a way the last great frontier for criminal justice and would be well served by those driven by creativity and stamina. Its high time that legislators stop attacking progress to gain political points with their donor class and start serving the interests of all Louisianans.