A series of amendments made to three bills that are part of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force in Senate Judiciary C Committee on Tuesday were made without some members of the coalition backing the reforms having been part of the negotiations that produced them.
Three days after the amendments were made (66 to one bill alone) supporters are still sorting out what the impact of the amendments will have on the goals of reducing the economic and social costs of Louisiana being the incarceration capitol of the United States (and world). The bills that the committee amended and approved were SB220, SB221 and SB139.
The Justice Reinvestment Task Force reforms have the backing of a broad if unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative groups. The Pelican Institute, Right on Crime and the Louisiana Family Forum are working with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Louisianans for Prison Alternatives in support of the bills that aim to reduce Louisiana's prison population through a combination of law, sentencing and parole reforms.
Elain Ellerbe, state director for Right On Crime, says she remains optimistic that the coalition will be successful in getting a reform package thorough the Legislature, even in this abbreviated 60-day session that must end by 6 p.m. on June 8.
"I've been working with the incarcerated for 20 years," Ellerbe says. "We're working to get Louisiana to join the 34 other states that have undertaken similar reforms."
She says Louisiana is different from other states, but not so different that reforms that have proven successful elsewhere won't work here.
"People have got to get hold of the idea that these are data-driven and evaluated policies," Ellerbe explains. "Using the data-driven approach, you get good policies that work."
Ellerbe describes Right On Crime as "the conservative voice on state criminal justice reform." The organization started in Texas.
Abhay Patel is interim executive director of the Pelican Institute, a conservative think tank based in New Orleans. Patel has only been on Pelican's board for a few months and was thrust into his current role after the previous interim director Will Booher left to accept a position in the Trump administration.
Patel says Pelican's team is still evaluating the impact of the amendments made in Judiciary C.
"We want to ensure that we are still getting significant savings from these bills," says Patel, who spoke with The Independent in a Friday morning phone call.
Patel says Pelican and its legislative team headed by Southern Strategies Group's Liz Mangham were aware of the negotiations between Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association that produced the amendments that were presented and approved on Tuesday in committee. Pete Adams, executive director of the LDAA, told The Independent earlier in the week that the amendments, which narrowed the focus of the legislation to concentrating on non-violent offenders, will still enable task force backers to achieve 86 percent of the savings they are seeking. Adams said he based that on data submitted by task force supporters.
"We are still working our way through the amendments to determine exactly what their impact will be," Patel explains.
Will Harrell, Southern regional policy director for the ACLU, says his group was shut out of the negotiations process. He pointed out that the task force worked in public for more than a year, reviewing the data on Louisiana's criminal justice system, then using that data to craft reforms. He disagrees with Adams' assessment of how much savings the state can achieve by limiting the focus of the reforms to non-violent offenders.
"I think we're going to find that the amendments reduce the savings by 20 percent or more because they remove that part of the reforms that focus on the state's most expensive inmates — geriatric prisoners," Harrell says. He spoke with The Independent in a Thursday phone call.
"Extreme sentences are the major drivers of cost for the Department of Corrections in Louisiana," Harrell explains. "The amendments removed geriatric parole which means the cost of keeping those older prisoners behind bars will continue to grow and grow and grow, even as the prospect that they can do any harm to anyone has disappeared."
Harrell says that eliminating the possibility of parole for those older prisoners puts the full burden of providing for the medical care of those prisoners fully on the state.
"If they could be paroled, they could become eligible for Medicaid which would at least let the federal government pay for the bulk of their healthcare costs," Harrell offers.
Harrell believes Adams and the district attorneys have been distorting the content of the reforms in order to continue some of the practices that have produced Louisiana's prison load.
"There is nothing anywhere in any of these bills that mandates the release of any offender — violent or non-violent," Harrell says. "The bills produce eligibility but those inmates must still show proof that they have reformed and rehabilitated themselves."
Harrell has worked on similar criminal justice reform efforts in eight other states. He points out that Texas adopted similar reforms several years ago. "Texas had three new prisons on the drawing board before they enacted these reforms," Harrell says. "They were able to cancel those three projects and close two existing prisons."
Harrell notes that other Southern states that have implemented criminal justice reforms have lower crime rates than Louisiana. He says that is proof that reforms can work here.
"If having people in jail is reducing crime, Louisiana should be the safest place on the planet," Harrell says. "Clearly we're not."
Ellerbe, Patel and Harrell all remain committed to advancing the reform process but note that it's important that the bills keep making their way through the process.
"It would be sad to lose all the time and resources we've put into this effort to let it be stopped," Ellerbe says.
The amended bills that emerged from Senate Judiciary C now await consideration by the full Senate. That could happened as early as Monday when the Senate reconvenes at 3 p.m.