Violent Crime Task Force offers glimpse of future showdowns over criminal justice reform
The newly seated Violent Crime Task Force met for the first time Tuesday. Its members convened for an introductory organizational session that lasted less than 30 minutes, but still provided a preview of the anticipated conservative push to unravel changes Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has made to Louisiana’s criminal justice system since taking office.
Law enforcement leaders and Republican lawmakers who’ve backed tough-on-crime legislation make up the majority of the 13-person task force that is expected to make recommendations to the state legislature. State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, created the panel with a resolution approved this year in a 60-34 largely party line vote in which the GOP prevailed.
Seabaugh’s objective is to scrutinize all aspects of the governor’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a legislative package approved with bipartisan support during Edwards’ first term in office that reduced Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate. It placed an emphasis on diverting nonviolent and low-level drug offenders from incarceration. Savings realized from the initiative have been put toward reducing recidivism, or the rate at which the formerly incarcerated return to prison.
At the onset of JRI’s implementation, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections projected Louisiana would save $171 million over a decade with a 10% reduction in incarceration. An estimated $184 million was earmarked for programs to prevent recidivism and funds to help crime victims.
Separate from the JRI package, lawmakers also approved “Raise the Age” legislation, which moved 17-year-olds accused of the most violent offenses from adult courts into the juvenile system.
Since Edwards pushed through the new laws, ultra-conservatives in the legislature have attempted to blame them for surges in rampant crime in Louisiana’s largest cities. Seabaugh took aim this year with a bill to repeal “Raise the Age.” His proposal stalled, but a similar version from Sen. Stewart Cathey, R-Monroe, was approved. Edwards promptly vetoed the measure, and Cathey’s bill never came up for reconsideration in the legislature’s one-day veto session in July.
In the interim, Republican Jeff Landry has made crime a prevalent issue in his campaign for governor. The attorney general serves as chairman of the Violent Crime Task Force, and Landry made mention of urban violence at the start of Tuesday’s meeting.
“We’re recognizing that they’re some bad people on our streets that are inflicting a tremendous amount of damage and pain to the citizens of this state,” Landry said before making an early exit for a continuing legal education event he said was required to maintain his license to practice law.
The agenda was minimal for the task force’s first meeting, with the highlight being the approval of a data request from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, other pertinent state agencies and local law enforcement to measure the JRI’s effectiveness.
Sara Whittington, staff attorney for the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, reminded task force members that the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office is collecting all data needed for a JRI assessment. Her organization, which receives funding from the initiative, has information on its programs that target recidivism and racism, among other issues, in the state’s criminal justice system, she said.
Whittington also stressed that JRI was never meant to directly address crime trends, implying that police data won’t be the best tool to measure the initiative’s success or failure.
Seabaugh’s resolution calls for the gathering and analysis of data arrests, charges, prosecutions, sentences, probation and parole activity, incarceration and recidivism.
“Violent crime is not what’s intended to be reviewed or overseen by JRI,” Whittington told the task force.
Crime survivors’ advocate Katie Hunter-Lowrey also addressed the task force. She urged members to consider crime prevention and victim needs within the scope of its work, including reparations.
“When we talk about violent crime, it just can’t be sentencing enhancements and punishment. We have to think about prevention. We have to think about healing services for survivors,” Hunter-Lowrey said.
A bill in the legislature Hunter-Lowrey supported this year created a system for tracking forensic testing on sexual assault survivors and removed a $1,000 limit on recouping expenses for an individual’s rape kit examinations.
Three of the most ardent law enforcement supporters in the legislature sit on the task force, likely providing a friendly ear for the attorney general’s anti-crime proposals.
Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, who is a former prosecutor, authored legislation for Landry this year to exclude juvenile court records in three parishes — Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans — from the blanket confidentiality protection provided to most underage defendants. Her bill advanced from the House but died in the Senate. In its place, she gained approval for a resolution to have the House Committee of the Administration of Criminal Justice study sentencing transparency. Villio also got approval for a bill that designates burglary of a residence while someone is inside a crime of violence.
Reps. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, the former chief deputy for the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, and Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, a former police officer, also sit on the Violent Crime Task Force. Reps. Nick Muscarello, R-Hammond, and Vanessa LaFleur, D-Baton Rouge, both lawyers, are also members.
Other groups represented on the panel include the state sheriffs, district attorneys, chiefs of police and public defenders associations. United Way, Louisiana Right on Crime and the state board on parole and probation are also represented.
The task force set its next meeting for Oct. 19.