October 3, 2019

The Shameful Partisan Politics of Punishment

In the lead up to election day we are often inundated with ill-informed, disingenuous attack ads that harken back to the old days of so-called “tough on crime” politics which bolstered mass incarceration throughout the nation—especially in the South. These messages attempt to misinform and to lead us to believe that 2017 criminal justice reforms were merely left-leaning, “liberal” policies that put public safety at risk.  These are lies, refuted by more than a decade of data and the cold hard facts of the bipartisan-led effort to make positive changes in 2017 and beyond.

Let us never forget that during the largest prison expansion boom in American history, the states that saw the greatest carceral increase were “Blue”—Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Neither should we forget that during the last decade, that trend began to shift under Republican administrations in those states. In fact, it was the Democratic Party’s icon of the 90’s, President Bill Clinton, who pushed through the most draconian federal criminal justice deform in history. The nonpartisan quasi-religious sentiment that brought us mass incarceration will not be undone through partisan politics.

Here in Louisiana, the first Governor to make the case publicly about the need for reform and compassion in the criminal justice system was Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. It is likely easier to recognize there is a problem when your state is the global leader of incarceration, while the state continues to flounder in areas of health, education, and poverty. Gov. Jindal signed legislation and authored a formal invitation to bring consultants into the state to develop a bi-partisan Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which ultimately produced the recommendations that underlie the 2017 reforms; and now some politicians see the need to attack Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards. 

Ironically, almost every piece of the 2017 reform package was sponsored by Republican lawmakers. Senator Danny Martiny (R-Metairie), was offering reform proposals going back to 2013.  Republican Senator Dan Claitor (Baton Rouge) was a crucial reform leader in the Senate, and chaired the most important committee for justice reform legislation. In the House, Republican Tanner McGee has led the charge to reduce our reliance on fines and fees since 2017. 

Although we rarely agree with Republican Sherman Mack (Albany) on anything, he played a decisive role in the passage of the Unanimous Jury bill as well as the Voting Rights Restoration bill, historic pieces of legislation. Representative Joe Marino (Greta), registered as “No Party,” has been a consistent voice of reasonable reform since his Freshman year in 2017. Republican Representative Julie Emerson (Carencro) has fought to reduce collateral consequences associated with criminal convictions as they relate to employability.  Far-right Republican Representative Beryl Amedee (Houma) shocked the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last session with her enlightened and passionate testimony on HB 270; a bill concerning criminal trespass on private water ways:

“Now, being faced with criminal trespass charges, they had to fight really hard to beat the charges. If they [the charges] had stuck, they would have lost their jobs with the Department of Justice, so this is what’s happening, over and over.

. . . It’s bad enough we have working adults who may lose their jobs by facing a criminal trespass charge, but now young people coming out of high school. This could affect where they go to college, and what employment they get to take part in once they are ready to apply. … This is affecting people’s livelihoods, where they go to school, where they go to work, right now.” 

 In truth, consistent support from legislators, regardless of party, is hard to come by. In politics, supporters and opponents can shift with the winds.  A bill pushed last session in the interest of the bail bond industry that we vehemently opposed was surprisingly carried by two African American Democrats and supported by almost the entire Louisiana Black Caucus. But make no mistake, urban, Democratic Legislators who have witnessed firsthand the carnage of our carceral state have been on the front lines of the reform movement since long before the conservative, rural policy makers showed any interest or concern whatsoever. 

Former Senator Don Cravins confronted policies fueling mass incarceration more than two decades ago after meeting Norris Henderson and Checo Yancy in Angola during the early 80’s. It’s hard to imagine a path forward that did not include the leadership of people such as Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge), Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) and Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans), just to name a few. Representative Randal Gaines (D-LaPlace) showed leadership throughout his term as President of the Louisiana Black Caucus. Representatives Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans), Patrick Jefferson (D-Homer), Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport), Edmond Jordan (D-Brusly), Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge), and Terry Landry (D-New Iberia) have voted consistently with Voters Organized to Educate priorities 100% of the time. 

The 1980’s and 1990’s are packed with examples of public officials from all over the political spectrum who manipulated a public health crisis into this incarceration nation. But we want to move forward, not Left nor Right, and create a criminal justice system that we would each use for our own children and our own neighbors – one that is fair, restorative, rehabilitative, and holistic. Let’s set the record straight once and for all. Criminal justice reform is simply the right thing to do. It knows no partisanship. Voters and policy makers have the civic duty to look beyond party affiliation. This is why we do our research, to find out who’s who on criminal justice reform. Please view your ballot on our website and contact us for more information.

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