Criminal justice reform: Who has the right numbers?

Criminal justice reform: Who has the right numbers?

(WAFB) - After the Department of Corrections (DOC) announced criminal justice reforms have outperformed their expectations earlier this week, the District Attorneys' Association released an estimate that 22 percent of Louisiana criminals had be rearrested after their release last year.

U.S. Senator John Kennedy, who has opposed prison reform in the state from its inception, jumped at the opportunity to attack the system.

"I think the governor believes that all of these inmates are sick, confused, mixed-up, or their mama didn't love them enough," Kennedy said in an interview. "Maybe that's true for some of them, but some of them are just bad."

The DOC responded to the criticism by releasing their own results, which showed lower re-arrest and recidivism rates than the DA's numbers. Many of the prisoners who were released in 2017 had outstanding warrants, meaning they were transferred to other prisons for other crimes as soon as they were released from their previous sentence. District attorneys consider that a re-arrest, while the DOC does not because those prisoners never left prison. The DOC also calculates its recidivism rate based on convictions, not re-arrests.

The feud between Kennedy and Governor John Bel Edwards began to heat up after Edwards visited President Donald Trump in New Jersey for a round table discussion on criminal justice reform. Edwards was the only Democrat invited to the meeting.

"I want the president to know the whole story," Kennedy said. "I imagine the governor was not going to tell him about the violence after this prison release."

Kennedy wrote a letter to Trump, using the district attorneys' numbers, that did not include the number of criminals who were re-arrested after their original release date. Those criminals would have been out of prison anyway, even without the reform act. Kennedy also criticized the DOC's leadership, highlighting a number of corruption charges against state prison leaders who had already been let go.

Corrections head Jimmy LeBlanc and the governor say Kennedy's criticism is fueled by political ambitions, noting criminal justice reform was supported by both Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana.

"Why is Kennedy splitting from his own party?" LeBlanc asked.

Kennedy says his criticism is "absolutely not" motivated by politics, and addressed criminal justice reform advocates' request for patience. "I would like the governor to sit down with the families of the two people who have been murdered and tell them just to be patient," Kennedy said.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore says the reforms are works in progress, noting he is working closely with LeBlanc to identify problems they can correct in practice.

Some key re-entry programs did not go into effect until after prisoners were released in 2017, meaning that group of offenders could not benefit from the reinvestment of certain savings because their release helped to create those savings. LeBlanc says those prisoners were better prepared to rejoin society than they would have been without the reform, however.

"This November release was just a wholesale release," Moore said. "The folks were only arrested 30 or 60 days early and were getting out anyway, but what did we do for them to help them not be arrested again?"

Moore also says the best re-entry programs are going on in state prisons, but the majority of state prisoners are held in local parish jails. LeBlanc called that problem the "elephant in the room." The issue was not addressed in 2016's reform package, although LeBlanc says the plan is to create better reception centers for five parishes that can help improve prisoners' lives after prison.

Kennedy says he thinks the governor ought to completely stop the program, but says he knows that won't happen. Instead, Kennedy essentially proposed the creation of another probation and parole board to screen good-time release candidates. That proposal would require a major overhaul of the justice system, though, because good-time release is legally determined by time and not discretion. Kennedy also says he wants prisoners to be required to get a GED before they are released.

The legislature could change the program in the next regular session, but LeBlanc says he wants to see the program "settle in and see how this works" before they take "another major step forward on criminal justice reform in Louisiana."

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