SADOW: Genuine Criminal Justice Reform Merits Enactment

Now more than ever, changes fronted by Republican state Sen. Jay Morris need to correct mistakes made in the name of criminal justice reform as well as tackle a newer phenomenon threatening public safety.

Five years ago began changes Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards spurred the Legislature to agree upon in the criminal justice system such as reducing sentences, different sentencing, and increased eligibility for release on a periodic (for work release) or permanent basis in the name of cost savings. With fewer people imprisoned and some of the money otherwise spent on that diverted to other programs that supposedly would reduce recidivism, this reputedly “smarter” approach to crime was sold as a way to lower imprisonment numbers, crime rates, and save money all at once.

Half a decade later, evidence on the cost side at least casts doubt on that proposition. The emptying of jails, where in the past local jailers housed roughly half of the state inmate population, hit some sheriffs’ bottom lines hard so they couldn’t cover costs for the larger and newer jails they had built to help incarcerate state prisoners at the previous higher levels, so legislators bumped up the daily rate paid $2 to $26.39 per prisoner. This wiped out the “savings” going back into state coffers.

And now suspicion is growing that the ballyhooed predicted drop in crime from “reinvested” dollars hasn’t really materialized. Morris, in a recent legislative committee meeting, hinted that data tracked by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association show 70 percent of offenders released as a result of the changes have been arrested again. LDAA didn’t confirm or deny that assertion.

For his own part, Morris has filed several bills this session to address escalating crime, one of which undoes actions undertaken as part of “reform.” His SB 142 would deny release of certain sex or violent offenders, and he or others will have to pursue other adjustments next year if the LDAA data turn out as pessimistically as they appear to be running when their collection wraps up later this year. It has moved onto the House.

Happily, Morris also is pursuing other changes that reflect unfortunate developments in criminal justice caused by “progressive” attitudes in both prosecution and in use of bail. Progressivism on this account means prosecutors and jurisdictions trying to reduce if not eliminate bail and refusing to prosecute for some crimes, sometimes even major ones. As poster child for this, Orleans Parish and its district attorney Democrat Jason Williams have adopted these policies that have triggered a number of instances where those accused of a serious crime have hit the streets to commit more, or weren’t prosecuted not even drawing an investigation while others not charged with a serious crime were cut loose only to commit something worse not long after.

Judges by themselves can pose problems in this regard as well. Monroe no party Mayor Friday Ellis recently castigated area judges for sentencing choices he saw as too lenient that have contributed to Monroe’s elevated crime rate.

Bills by Morris address such rogue government behavior that threatens people’s wellbeing. His SB 4 would amend the Constitution to remove judge’s discretion on bail for some serious offenses, while his SB 89 does the same by statute; both await a Senate vote. And his constitutional amendment SB 263 in tandem with his SB 387 would empower the Attorney General to take cases a local prosecutor refused.

While the LDAA has indicated it would oppose SB 387, it’s a reasonable alternative to make sure the system works if a rogue prosecutor won’t do his job for ideological reasons. This package of bills by Morris will do more to deter crime than previous so-called reform deserves enactment into law or the Constitution, and Morris is commended for taking up this agenda.

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