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Elain Ellerbe | August 1, 2017
The much needed criminal justice reforms that came out of the 2017 Louisiana Legislature were historic.
One element that warrants a closer look is the diverse group of elected officials, court practitioners, law enforcement, community advocates, business people, faith-based organizations and even ex-offenders, working together to forge this first-of-its kind alliance. While it has been conservatives that have moved criminal justice reforms over the finish line in many states, many of Louisiana’s conservatives kept holding on to their “hard on crime” stance causing Louisiana to reign for decades as the number one incarcerator in the world. However, over the last few years, Louisiana has seen its near neighbors such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, embrace conservative criminal justice reform with much success.
Observing other southern states successes in decreasing prison populations while realizing continued lowering of crime rates grabbed the attention of two senior legislators from the New Orleans area. Republican Senator Danny Martiny and Speaker Pro Tem of the House and a Democrat, Representative Walt Leger worked together to champion legislation in 2016 that established the Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The passage of this bill that established a bi-partisan group of legislators, DA’s, Public Defenders, Victim Rights and other key stakeholders to study the drivers of Louisiana’s prison population set in motion the structure for the historic criminal justice reforms to be passed during the session in 2017.
As a result of Senator Martiny and Representative Leger’s commitment to bring criminal justice reform to Louisiana, both conservatives and liberals reached across the aisle to find the common ground needed to pass 10 pieces of legislation. The result was the Justice Reinvestment legislative package. To borrow a phrase from the culturally rich New Orleans House of Blues, It was in our diversity that we found unity and marshalled such a coordinated front of support that the critics and naysayers were shut out in the end.
Senator Martiny and Representative Leger are to be commended for the light they shined on Louisiana’s dark criminal justice history. Both will be term limited out in 2019 and their leadership will be missed in the Louisiana Legislature. Hopefully for the next two years, they will continue to be Louisiana’s criminal justice champions moving reforms even further.