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Senator Kennedy Blasts Criminal Justice Reforms Ahead of Governor's Meeting With President Trump

Wallis Watkins

Governor John Bel Edwards will be in New Jersey Thursday to meet with President Trump about criminal justice reform. Louisiana revamped its criminal justice system last year, but the effort is facing criticism from some of the Governor’s staunchest political opponents, including Senator John Kennedy.

In 2017, bipartisan legislation was approved by the Louisiana legislature that expanded probation and parole opportunities for non-violent and non-sexual offenders. As a result, the state granted an early release to nearly 2,000 prisoners.

Ahead of Governor Edwards’ meeting with the President Thursday, Senator Kennedy sent a letter to Trump, warning the state’s criminal justice overhaul has endangered public safety.

“As you prepare to hold meetings on prison and sentencing reform,” said Kennedy in his letter to the President, “I wanted to share a cautionary tale from my home state of Louisiana. People are being killed because of the so-called criminal justice reforms that were put in place.”

Kennedy says data collected by the state’s district attorneys shows 22% of those ex-inmates have been re-arrested after their release. Two of those re-arrests are for murder charges.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Governor’s spokesman, Richard Carbo said the "information by the junior senator is unequivocally wrong.”

The Governor’s office claims the total re-arrest rate is 19%.

According to Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, 12% of the 1,952 inmates released as a result of the reforms are once again facing charges or are back in custody. He says that number is in line with the state’s average recidivism rate of 15%.

Shedding Louisiana’s title as incarceration capital of the nation has been one of Governor Edwards policy goals since taking office. As a result of the reforms, Louisiana is now second to Oklahoma in the number of people imprisoned.

Reducing Louisiana’s prison population has saved the state more than $12 million so far, twice as much as originally expected. Most of that money will be used on programs to help inmates transition back into society, but those programs won’t be implemented until the fall.  Secretary LeBlanc says the return on that investment will take time.

“Give this an opportunity. If this doesn’t work,” he said, “then there would be concern.”

Senator Kennedy says while the Governor is concerned about the number of people in prison, he’s “more focused on how many people we have committing crime.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry joined Kennedy in criticizing the reforms.

“The Governor’s reckless approach to empty our jails simply so he can take credit for a smaller prison population remains a threat to Louisiana citizens,” Landry said in a statement released Monday.

Attorney General Landry and Senator Kennedy are both considering running against Governor Edwards in next year’s election.