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Time is now for criminal justice reform - Our View


March 25, 2017
Originally Posted on The Town Talk

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, or LABI as they are better known, and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry don’t always see eye-to-eye, as evidenced by the often contentious exchanges between the two sides last year regarding lawsuits against oil and gas companies in the state.

But when LABI President and CEO Stephen Waguespack and Landry each made visits to Alexandria last week and took time to chat with The Town Talk we found something they both agree on — crime is a serious issue in Louisiana and the Legislature needs to make criminal justice reform a priority in this year’s session.

Waguespack, representing business interests, notes the negative impact the perception of a high crime rate has on attracting and retaining business. In his presentation to the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce last week he also expressed concern over the high number of non-violent offenders the state locks up.

“Louisiana is the incarceration leader in the country,” Waguespack said. “A lot of these non-violent offenders end up in a bed next to someone who is a much more hardened criminal, and they learn criminal skills they take back to their community. That’s where the cycle of incarceration starts. Instead, let’s get them into a drug program, let’s get them into a training program, let’s teach them skills to help them improve their lives and get a job.”

In his remarks to The Town Talk Editorial Board, Landry echoed many of the same concerns. Citing his business background, Landry notes the state’s history of political corruption as a hindrance to business development, and has targeted that as a priority. “If Santa Claus landed at the Capital, I would love to have a dedicated corruption unit to ferret out that kind of activity,” Landry said.

Regarding concerns over high numbers of non-violent offenders in jail, or too many people in jail, it was noted in discussions with Landry that there are often many cases of people getting arrested and then quickly released because there isn’t enough room to keep them locked up. So which is it — do we have too many prisons and too many inmates, or too few jails?

In reality, we believe it’s some of both. Editorial Board members argued there are cases where people are in jail whose cases could have been handled differently, and there are repeat offenders walking the streets today who should be in jail.

In general, Landry agreed noting, “Louisiana needs a good reformation of the criminal code — we should start there. We have got to get it right.” He noted he has seen some positive success with pre-trial programs and drug courts, and he welcomes efforts to further develop alternatives to incarceration when appropriate. That’s in line with Wageuspack’s comments and we agree those programs make sense. Courts should have more options, especially with first-time and non-violent offenders.

Landry also said he supports increasing efforts to educate inmates. “If you take a juvenile delinquent or an adult with no high school diploma, and you get him a GED, you can reduce recidivism by 30-40 percent.”

Another area Landry said the Legislature can help is by changing the way the court system is funded. “The court system is broke — they funded it with traffic fines. That’s ridiculous.” He also is in favor of revising sentencing guidelines, adding “justice is supposed to be blind. Sentences should be uniform.”

All of which makes sense to us. As Waguespack noted in his speech to Chamber members, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and one of the highest crime rates. That simply doesn’t make sense. Landry, the state’s top legal representative agrees, adding “we need to update the criminal code to the 21st Century.”

Citizens want criminal justice reform. Business interests want it. The state Attorney General wants it. So Legislators, can you give us that this session, or at least get the process started? Because, just like the state budget, what we are doing now isn’t working.