Sen. Kennedy’s wrong about Louisiana’s justice reforms: They’re working
Nevertheless, some of these landmark reforms have recently come under fire. Armed with the 1980’s tough-on-crime mindset, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Madisonville, criticized Louisiana’sJustice Reinvestment reforms. The new laws are intended to rehabilitate inmates, support crime survivors and prioritize prison beds for the most dangerous offenders. With a heavy dose of hyperbole, Sen. Kennedy asserted that neighborhoods and small towns are becoming “war zones” and “drug dens,” ostensibly because of the reforms. He even dismissed Louisiana’s Department of Corrections as “not competent.”
Despite Sen. Kennedy’s misleading (and some downright false) comments, it is important not to lose sight of how the justice reinvestment laws are serving Louisianians. Lawmakers must not reverse the progress that has been made. Instead, legislators should seek to take it further.
The reforms are already paving the way for laudable progress, and Louisiana’s prison population has been dwindling. Today, it is below 33,000 inmates for the first time in around 20 years thanks, in part, to a program that allows earlier release of nonviolent offenders who have a history of good behavior. This has permitted the state to surrender its spot as the nation’s top jailer. It is also the reason why, in less than a year, the Department of Corrections has been able to save $14 million in taxpayer money. What’s more, these savings are far higher than originally forecasted.
The Justice Reinvestment reforms will do much more, though. By 2027, Louisiana’s bloated community supervision and prison populations are projected to shrink by 10-12 percent. In turn, this will save around $262 million, and 70 percent of those funds will be reinvested in programs to help crime survivors and rehabilitate the formerly incarcerated. Through these methods, Justice Reinvestment promises to reduce recidivism rates and redirect taxpayer money toward evidence-based programs to safeguard society.
Despite these successes and the future potential, Sen. Kennedy persists in vocally opposing reforms that enjoyed bipartisan support and the backing of many district attorneys and police officers. Indeed, he recently lambasted the initiative, stating that 22 percent of those released from prison under the new laws have already been rearrested. In reality, only 19 percent have and while an ideal goal would be zero, a 19 percent re-arrest rate is a step in the right direction. It is especially promising given that it is well below the country’s average.
Sen. Kennedy also has wrongly implied that the reforms are responsible for high recidivism rates, which is the rate of those rearrested and reconvicted after their release and often results in more prison time. Again, the numbers paint a different picture. Around three quarters of a year into the program’s use, of the inmates freed under the Justice Reinvestment laws, only 6.1 percent have been arrested again. This is actually excellent news because before the reforms, Louisiana had been averaging a 15.56 percent recidivism rate within a one-year period after release.
Despite such overwhelmingly positive data, out of the thousands of individuals released from prison who seem to have predominantly led wholesome lives, Sen. Kennedy instead cherry-picked five stories of men who have since been rearrested to illustrate his point. Using these anecdotes, he criticized the criminal justice reforms — implying that these few people are evidence of a failing system.
Yet, many of the recent parolees in question haven’t been convicted. Nobody, including the junior senator, knows if they are guilty or innocent yet. To proceed to dismantle the Justice Reinvestment laws based on these inconclusive anecdotes would be a mistake — especially since the reforms are showing such promise. These reforms are moving Louisiana in the right direction. With time, the program should fulfill its mandate if not exceed it, but we must be patient.