BATON ROUGE — U.S. Sen. John Kennedy targeted Gov. John Bel Edwards’ criminal justice overhaul for criticism Tuesday, saying he doesn’t believe the corrections department can properly manage the changes and protect public safety.
While the Democratic Edwards participated in an event in Washington championing the package of criminal sentencing law changes, the Republican Kennedy released an online video and statement slamming the agency that is overseeing their implementation.
“Our Louisiana Department of Corrections is utterly incompetent to administer this piece of legislation,” Kennedy says in the nearly eight-minute video, citing “numerous scandals” at the department.
Edwards’ office replied by saying the senator was trying “to score cheap political points by spouting wildly inaccurate and unrelated nonsense at the expense of the most promising bipartisan efforts to improve Louisiana’s criminal justice system and improve public safety in a decade.”
The criminal justice revamp won support from state lawmakers earlier this year with the backing of a wide-ranging coalition that included faith-based groups, a conservative business organization and the American Civil Liberties Union.
But the effort has been controversial.
Supporters say the changes will lessen Louisiana’s top-of-the-nation incarceration rate and reinvest the savings from having fewer people locked up into rehabilitation programs for prisoners. Opponents said the changes could release dangerous criminals back into communities.
Kennedy zeroed in on the portion of the package that expands probation and parole opportunities and shrinks sentences, mainly for non-violent offenders — and the 1,900 inmates released early on Nov. 1.
The senator’s office sent out a list of links to news articles alleging nepotism and theft in the corrections department. The list cited a legislative auditor’s report that suggested the agency didn’t follow public bid laws in a $6 million building renovation. It included another legislative audit released in October that said the department doesn’t effectively track its prisoners and has inconsistencies in how it calculates offender release dates.
“Look at their track record. I wouldn’t hire these people to run a food truck,” Kennedy said in an interview. “They don’t even know where their inmates are.”
In its reply, Edwards’ office called Kennedy’s criticisms a desperate attention grab stemming from his political ambitions and offered item-by-item rebuttals of the audits and news articles linked by the senator’s office.
“The senator should dignify the people who elected him to represent them in Washington by focusing his efforts on the job before him, which ought to be working with the rest of us to improve and better our state rather than creating petty distractions,” Edwards press secretary Tucker Barry said.
The list released by Kennedy’s office also included controversies involving the Louisiana State Police, which is run separately and not under the control of the corrections secretary.
Asked who should administer the criminal justice revamp, Kennedy said he didn’t know. But he suggested the governor should consider suspending early inmate releases until some other “competent” person or agency is in charge.
The senator also more broadly criticized the criminal justice revamp, saying it puts public safety at risk.
“I believe in second chances, but I don’t think that’s why they passed this legislation,” Kennedy said. “I think it was about saving money to spend on other things.”
However, the legislation requires that 70 percent of the estimated $262 million in savings over the next 10 years will have to be reinvested in treatment and training programs to keep people from returning to prison. Kennedy dismissed that requirement, saying the dollars could be funneled elsewhere through the budget process.