Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards pushes back on criminal justice reform critics
Gov. John Bel Edwards pushed back on criticisms that his criminal justice reforms have led to a significant spike in crime across Louisiana, calling the arguments a "very convenient political talking point for some people out there" during a tour of Lafayette's Faith House Family Justice Center on Monday.
Edwards' comments came as part of a series his office is doing to mark the five-year anniversary of the criminal justice reforms the Legislature passed through a bipartisan effort in 2017. The reforms primarily focused on reducing the number of non-violent offenders in the state's correctional system.
"It's allowing us, I think, to better focus in a smarter way, on violent crime, victim services and crime prevention," Edwards said.
The reforms have been targeted by several Republican officials, among them Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, as being responsible for the uptick in crime. During the 2022 legislative session, Landry was part of an effort to rollback some of the reforms to address the "level of violent crime that many of us have not seen since the 1980s."
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It is true that Louisiana has seen a spike in its violent crime rate since the onset of the COVID pandemic. Louisiana's violent crime rate rose from 559.7 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 639.4 per 100,000 people in 2020, the highest mark in at least a decade, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"What is sad is that both I and many district attorneys and sheriffs completely predicted where we are today," Landry told the Louisiana Senate Judiciary B committee in April.
But Louisiana isn't the only state that's seen violent crime surge over that period. Over that same span, the U.S. rate rose from 380.8 per 100,000 people to 398.5 per 100,000.
During his discussion with Faith House employees, domestic violence survivor advocates and local officials on Monday, Edwards pointed to the pandemic as the likely suspect in the rising crime rate.
"There are folks who want to tie that (rising crime) to efforts at criminal justice reform," Edwards said. "I think the mistake there is that it's happening in states that didn't undertake criminal justice reform, and we know that we focused practically everything we did on non-violent offenders."
Since the reforms were implemented, the state's prison system had around 9,400 fewer inmates in 2021 than it did in 2016, though Edwards said the state has more violent offenders in prison than it did when the reforms were passed. The number of non-violent offenders fell by nearly 10,300 over the same period, according to a report on the reforms by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Louisiana still ranks at the top for incarceration rates among U.S. states, but Edwards said the reforms have allowed the state to invest more in preventing violent crime and to fund resources like Faith House that help victims and survivors.
Edwards also said that if the state had not had the reforms in place, the state's department of corrections would not have the staff needed to handle the additional inmates. Jimmy LeBlanc, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the state would have to be "calling in the National Guard" if they had the additional inmates.
"Knowing the efforts that we made over the last several years to reduce recidivism and to focus on violent crime, I happen to believe that things would be worse today if we had not made the changes that we made," Edwards said.
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This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Gov. Edwards: Criminal justice reforms haven't caused spike in crime