The 2020 Louisiana Regular Session convened with a freshman class of 46 representatives and 18 senators, with Republicans holding a majority in both chambers. A conservative, pro-business legislature brought a refreshed interest in criminal justice reforms focused on making Louisiana reentry ready.
These reforms included the removal of barriers for the formerly incarcerated through expanded use of technology, access to legal identification upon release, and making the expungement process more affordable. The 2019 attempts to explore alternative funding sources for Louisiana’s court were extended by legislation that will allow for uniform data collection from the courts. Louisiana is one step closer to moving away from a court system that is reliant on the collection of fines and fees.
For too long, criminal justice — as a core function of government — has not been held to the same standards of efficiency that conservatives hold other government programs. Each year, more than $700 million in tax dollars is allocated to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. However, 43 percent of persons who leave prison find their way back to prison within five years. That’s a 43 percent failure rate. Louisiana’s criminal justice system is not giving taxpayers a return on their investment.
Louisiana began the reform effort in 2017 with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) aimed at adopting and applying conservative principles to this function of state government. Conservatives, traditionally known for being tough on crime, have begun to be tough on criminal justice spending.
Applying conservative principles to criminal justice policy is vital to achieving a cost-effective system that protects citizens, restores victims and reforms offenders. However, there were too many bills this session that created new crimes, enhanced penalties, created mandatory minimums, and raised fees and fines.
The intentions of the bills were noble, but very reminiscent of the “tough on crime” era, which did not have long-term public safety and cost-efficient results. As conservatives, we should avoid growing government by adding new crimes to the criminal code Creating new crimes does not enhance public safety. Enhanced penalties and mandatory minimums are costly and provide little return on taxpayer investment.
Additionally, there is a human cost to an overreliance on incarceration. Big government is what we as conservatives fight against in every other policy arena except criminal justice. These “tough on crime” policies grow government and are fiscally irresponsible. Texas, for example, has proven that conservative, criminal justice reforms reduce crime and incarceration rates. Unfortunately, too many of these bills have found their way to the governor’s desk. In most cases, the voices of the criminal justice advocates helped tone the bills down by addressing policy concerns, and hopefully lessening the negative impacts.
The 2017 reforms were front and center during last year’s gubernatorial race. Thus, attempts to rollback portions of the reforms this session came at no surprise. SB188 was introduced “to combat” Louisiana’s high homicide rate—serious issue for the past 30 years. SB188 would have classified possession of a firearm by a convicted felon as a “violent offense” as defined by RS 14:2(b). This bill functionally assumed that a felon (violent and some non-violent) who simply possess a firearm are violent criminals. Their activity is certainly criminal, and present law more than adequately addresses this behavior with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The proposed legislation ignored much of the data obtained during by Justice Reinvestment Task Force that was analyzed with the input of a wide variety of the criminal justice stakeholders throughout the state.
There are three decades data to support the premise that penalty enhancements for nonviolent crime, the impulse toward punitive convenience, and the creation of new criminal laws is not effective at reducing crime in Louisiana. Instead, it creates a system with an overreliance on incarceration, high recidivism rates, and little to no accountability for tax dollars.
In the end, SB188 failed to make it out of committee, thanks to the tireless efforts of the many advocates who fought to protect the original intent of the reforms and to the many conservative lawmakers who recognized the flawed policies of the bill. This issue may have been the biggest conservative win of the session.
Louisiana’s 2017 model will prove successful as it has so proven in other conservative states. For example, Texas has closed ten prison facilities while improving public safety by applying conservative reforms. Louisiana has made improvements to the state’s criminal justice system, but there is still more work to be done.
It is time to apply conservative principles to the task of delivering a better return on taxpayer investments in public safety. I want a safer, stronger Louisiana that promotes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of its citizens. Our security, prosperity and our freedom depend on it.