On August 9, Gov. Edwards joined President Trump, other state governors, and White House cabinet members in a roundtable discussion about the positive impact that criminal justice reform is having across the nation.
Gov. Edwards explained to the President that the package of bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that Edwards signed into law in 2017 was working.
“In Louisiana, we’re proud of the work we’ve done,” said the Governor. “It’s been sentencing reform, prison reform, and a real focus on reentry and for the first time in 20 years, I can tell you Louisiana does not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation today.”
“We are reinvesting the savings into our reentry program and also into the victim services. And so we are excited about what we’re doing and looking forward to sharing that with you,” according to the press release.
A report in the Advocate by Elizabeth Crips noted that Trump and others at the meeting spoke about the need to enhance job and skills training programs in prisons, and to focus on how to prepare people to be productive citizens when they get out. “Our first duty is to our citizens, including those who have taken the wrong path but are seeking redemption and a new beginning,” Trump said. “That’s people that have been in prison, and they come out and they’re having a hard time.”
According to Gov. Edwards’ press release, he was the only democratic governor attending. Also attending were Gov. Matt Bevin (R-Kentucky), Gov. Phil Bryant (R-Mississippi), Gov. Nathan Deal (R-Georgia), Gov. Doug Burgum (R-N. Dakota), Atty. General Ken Paxton (R-Texas), Atty. General Pam Bondi (R-Florida), Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Jared Kushner and other White House staffers.
Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, commented, “The most powerful thing about this… I look at guys like John Bel Edwards in Louisiana, represents a different party than I do in Kentucky in terms of our political affiliation. This is something that we are very much of like-mind on. I think this transcends anything political.”
Energy Sec. Rick Perry said, “I want to share with these governors around here; every one of them is courageous…”
Just after the meeting, Gov. Edwards gave President Trump a letter detailing Louisiana’s efforts, said the release.
The Governor wrote, “For nearly twenty years, Louisiana was known as the nation’s incarceration capital. Our imprisonment rate was nearly double the national average. We were spending roughly $700 million annually on corrections, more than any other line item except education and healthcare, but our communities were not safer for it….”
And, “With the technical support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, we convened a bipartisan task force and spent a year scrutinizing our correctional policies and practices. In June of 2017, I signed into law the most expansive criminal justice reform package in Louisiana’s history…Republicans, Democrats and Independents, as well as the business and religious community, came together to pass these historic reforms.”
The Governor invited the President to tour the State Penitentiary at Angola and see efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
“I believe you will gain a great deal of insight by visiting Louisiana State Penitentiary and I look forward to welcoming you to Louisiana on behalf of the people I serve,” Edwards wrote in the letter given to Trump. “The reentry programming services at LSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) are key examples of how we plan to utilize the savings from our reforms to better prepare those being released from our prison system. In fact, the first year savings is dedicated specifically to the five parishes that generate nearly 50% of Louisiana’s prison admissions…
Also according to the report by Crisp, Governor Edwards joined other Democratic governors in Colorado recently and discussed divisive politics and ways to unite people. “Folks are just anxious,” the Aspen Daily News quoted Edwards as saying Friday at the Aspen Institute event. “We ought not to vilify anyone. I don’t talk about Trump backers as crazy or racist.”
The justice reform efforts have not been without controversy. Critics point to the two individuals who are now accused of murder and others who have been rearrested. District attorneys are some of the most vocal skeptics, according to various sources.
Some estimate that as many as 22 percent are now back in the justice system, according to the Advocate. The Department of Corrections disputes that figure as inflated. “I’m not sure where the DAs are getting their information from,” said the head of Corrections, James LeBlanc. “Our numbers are not anywhere close to what they are saying.”
Dr. Susan Tucker, clinical psychologist and the Assistant Warden at the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility, has explained the significance of comprehensive psychological programs in the corrections and justice system.
Tucker developed the Steve Hoyle Intensive Substance Abuse Program which has earned national recognition for excellence. In 2016 the Louisiana Legislature commended Tucker and her team in a House Concurrent Resolution pointing to multi-million dollar cost savings to the state because of shorter incarceration times of those offenders who participated in the psychological programs designed by Tucker.
Dr. Raman Singh, previous Medical Director at Corrections, pointed out the reasons for over-incarceration in Louisiana. Based on a 2016 Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s review Singh said the top reasons were mandatory sentences and habitual offender laws, high rates of local incarceration without treatment programs, and “not addressing issues driving criminal behavior such as substance and mental illness.”
Jails and prisons have a disproportionately high number of persons with mental health issues and people with a serious mental illness. He noted that of the mentally ill in society, greater than 40 percent have been arrested and the majority of these are brought in for minor offenses. Those with mental illness spend two to five times longer in jail.
There is a complex interplay of multiple societal factors stemming from problems in education, stressed family structures, socio-economic challenges and lack of job opportunities. The unemployment rate in the mentally ill adults in Louisiana is 88.3 percent.
And while 16 percent of the DOC prison population has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, 82 percent are diagnosed with a substance use disorder.