Louisiana's criminal justice overhaul passed with a wide-ranging coalition of bipartisan support, but that hasn't stopped two of the state's most prominent Republican elected officials from slamming one of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' signature achievements.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry clearly see the legislation approved this year as a point of attack against a governor with whom both have regularly clashed.
The criticisms, hinging on risks to public safety, show that the rollout of the law changes could determine whether the criminal justice package is a boon for Edwards' political resume as he campaigns for re-election in 2019 or a blow to his list of accomplishments.
Kennedy and Landry are both seen as possible Edwards challengers in the governor's race.
The bills championed by the governor expand probation and parole opportunities and shrink sentences, mainly for nonviolent offenders. They ease financial burdens inmates face upon release. And they require most of the savings from the reduction in prison population to be spent on treatment and training programs aimed at keeping exiting inmates from returning to crime.
The criminal justice revamp won support from state lawmakers with the backing of a wide-ranging coalition that included faith-based groups, business leaders and progressive organizations. The influential and conservative Louisiana Family Forum was on board, as was the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the American Civil Liberties Union. The nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts provided data analysis and technical assistance.
Supporters said Louisiana — which spends about $700 million a year on correctional costs — should focus more on rehabilitation to improve public safety, and end the state's role as the nation's top jailer, noting that other Southern states have taken similar approaches.
"The people in Louisiana are not innately more sinister, more evil or more criminal than people elsewhere," Edwards said repeatedly as he pushed the law changes. "Why do we have the highest incarceration rate in the nation?"
But the subject remains a tricky one in this "tough on crime" state, as became evident when 1,900 inmates were released early on Nov. 1. The inmates were getting out an average of eight weeks early. The releases, however, still proved controversial.
Landry denounced the criminal justice redesign, calling it "dangerous legislation."
"Reducing the incarceration rate of Louisiana for its own sake will not create safer communities; rather, it will have the opposite result. Without having a fully-implemented plan in place for the effects of that reform jeopardizes our state's public safety," the attorney general wrote in a letter to a Lafayette newspaper.
Edwards responded that Landry skipped "nearly 100 hours of public discussion" during debate over the law changes and was "either misinformed or knowingly spreading wrong information to the public in an effort to incite fear" for political gain.
Kennedy followed up on the criticism last week as Edwards was in Washington touting the benefits of the legislation. In an online video and interviews, Kennedy panned the criminal justice revamp as a threat to public safety — and specifically blasted the corrections department as too incompetent to administer the law changes.
The department "has repeatedly shown that it is unfit to administer such a program, especially one that puts career criminals back on the streets," the senator said, declaring the agency shouldn't be trusted to "run a junior high cafeteria."
Kennedy referenced news articles alleging nepotism and theft in the prisons system and a recent legislative audit saying the department doesn't effectively track its prisoners. He suggested the entire criminal justice overhaul was ill-conceived, noting that at least two of the inmates released early already have been rearrested for other crimes.
Edwards' office replied by calling Kennedy's criticisms a desperate attention grab and accusing him of "spouting wildly inaccurate and unrelated nonsense at the expense of the most promising bipartisan efforts to improve Louisiana's criminal justice system."
Both supporters and opponents of the criminal sentencing law changes are closely tracking enactment of the legislation, suggesting the issue will continue to be a political rallying point until voters decide whether Edwards wins a second term.
-- Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.