Recently, a narrative has emerged alleging that the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) legislation, which passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support, has contributed to gun violence in the Pelican State. This is certainly not the case. A similar narrative was used by proponents of SB 188 in Louisiana’s 2020 Legislative session and is one of the points argued in a recent post on Settle Talk Blog, “We Need Justice Reform.” Louisiana’s crime rates are higher than many of our southern neighbors. However, unilaterally attributing felons in possession of firearm is unfounded and only serves to support the broader national push for expanded gun control.
In 2017, as part of the JRI legislation, the mandatory minimum sentence for an individual convicted of violating Louisiana’s felon in possession of a firearm was reduced from 10 to 5 years, while the maximum penalty remained unchanged at 20 years. In the blog, “We Need Justice Reform,” the author states, “[u]ntil illegally possessing a gun is taken seriously, we will continue to have gun violence.” Louisiana law certainly takes illegally possessing a firearm seriously. In fact, more seriously than our neighboring states. Louisiana’s law, even before 2017, is stricter than our fellow southern states in addressing this issue. For example: Alabama – up to 10 years; Arkansas – up to 6 years; Mississippi – 1-10 years; Oklahoma – 1-10 years; Texas – 2-10 years; Tennessee – 1-6 years; Kentucky – 1-10 years; Georgia – 1-5 years; and Florida – up to 15 years (or life in certain cases). According to the 2018 FBI crime statistics, each of these states has a lower murder rate than Louisiana. There is no evidence that Louisiana law pertaining to a felon in possession of a firearm law is key to reducing Louisiana’s crime rate.
On February 14, 2021, President Biden called for the U.S. Congress to “strengthen gun laws” and Speaker Pelosi has responded with an aim to do just that. Almost one month later, the Settle Talk Blog post seemingly takes up this cause by pushing the narrative that guns are the problem, not the individuals who use them illegally. As a former law enforcement officer, I aggressively pursued and charged offenders with violating the felon in possession of a firearm statute. I do agree there should be a criminal consequence if a convicted felon breaks the law and possesses a firearm. I also agree that across the nation and in the Pelican State we must address violent crime. To accomplish this, partners across Louisiana must have a serious discussion and propose real solutions.
Texas implemented similar JRI reforms in 2007 and since realized amazing results. Recidivism (repeat offending) has been reduced, the crime rate is the lowest since the 1960s, and eight prisons have closed. Texas managed to accomplish this feat with a felon in possession of a firearm law that is one-half Louisiana’s minimum and maximum sentence range. Additionally, according to the FBI’s crime statistics for 2018, the murder rate in Texas is less than half that of Louisiana. The 2017 JRI reforms were the result of scrutinized data and evidence-based research, not anecdotal events. Moreover, the implementation of the reforms have proven effective.
Lately the 2017 reforms have become a political punching bag and the illogical scapegoat for decades of high crime rates. The reforms were enacted because of Louisiana’s decades of reliance on a “lock them up” philosophy that was found lacking in benefits to victims, the public, or the offender. The stage is set for a combative 2021 Legislative Session. I challenge everyone in Louisiana government, law enforcement, district attorneys and advocates to work together to ensure a safer Louisiana because Louisianians deserve real justice reform. Real reform involves smart, individual sanctions, incentivizes changed behavior, and invests in programs and services that target the underlying drivers of crime. Building more prison beds to accommodate the incarceration of more people is not real reform. Let us focus on the real issues and find lasting solutions.