Criminal Justice Reform and Public Safety

I began my career as an Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans where I prosecuted violent offenders and drug traffickers. I was proud of the work that I did there and I continue to benefit from the education I received in those courtrooms. But the lesson that stuck with me the most is that, although we’ve been tough on crime, we haven’t been smart on crime.

criminal justice reformIn Louisiana, we’ve somehow ended up with the highest incarceration rate in the world but still struggle with public safety and recidivism. We’ve sent more and more nonviolent offenders to prison while at the same time cutting funding for effective prison alternatives, programs that reduce recidivism and services to support victims. Our spending on Corrections has ballooned to near $700 Million annually and our crime rates haven’t improved.

I have worked for almost a decade in the Legislature trying to improve our system. In 2015, I created the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force to find solutions that make sense. We created an unprecedented, bipartisan coalition to get the job done-a wide range of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, business leaders, conservative groups, victim advocacy groups, sheriffs, district attorneys. And the list goes on. We worked together, we gathered facts, and we came to informed conclusions that resulted in a final legislative package that finally passed. This was no easy task. Criminal justice reform is personal to everyone. It is personal to the families of those victimized and the families of those convicted. But because of the courage of the task force and my colleagues, we are on our way to a smarter and safer future.

The reforms we passed focused on:

  • Saving prison beds for those who pose a serious threat to society
  • Strengthening community supervision
  • Clearing barriers to reentry
  • Reinvesting savings back into the system

My legislation, Act 261, is the namesake of the Task Force. It is the reinvestment piece-the most important piece. It sounds cold and clinical when we talk about a better return on our investment, but it’s actually the heartbeat because we are talking about investing in our people. Act 261 directs money saved by reforms back into public safety in the form of prison alternatives, drug courts, victim services, counseling programs, substance abuse and mental health treatment and juvenile justice. Act 261 allows us to invest more in our people-and the return is a better quality of life for everyone.

The hope is that the impact of these reforms will be plentiful. The experts at Pew Charitable Trusts project the following results over the next ten years:

  • Prison population reduced by 10%
  • Community supervision population reduced by 12%
  • $262 million saved
  • $184 million reinvested into programs and policies proven to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime

In addition, in every state where these types of reforms have been implemented, crime rates have gone down and incarceration has also been reduced, strengthening communities in the process.

However, we are not done yet. The ideal situation would be to have the money to pay for supportive services on the front end, but that wasn’t an option available to us. We have to make sure that people with early release dates as a result of the reforms receive the programming and supportive services they need, or else recidivism will continue to rise. In addition, we need to consider the issue of housing for recent releases. This is particularly a problem in New Orleans since we do not have a strong network of hallway houses.

Criminal Justice reform is an ongoing commitment that will require continuous work and consensus. We need our strong, bipartisan coalition to keep working together to make sure that the intent behind the reforms becomes the reality.