The Hill: Louisiana's criminal justice reforms are about second chances
By Arthur Rizer and Emily Mooney
On Nov. 1, 2017 Louisiana implemented the early release provisions of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). For many, this day marked the beginning of a second chance.
This legislation is a package of various reforms aimed at Louisiana’s criminal justice system. One piece of the JRI reform package expanded the opportunity for those convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released after serving a shorter sentence. This reform is meant to reward those incarcerated for good behavior and ensure that Louisiana’s resources are focused on those who truly pose a threat to public safety. Unfortunately, a recent column made Neilson Rizzuto — a young man who crashed into a crowd of revelers last year — the face of recent criminal justice reforms, failing to recognize the people truly meant to benefit from such reforms.
The column argued that the early release of individuals like Rizzuto demonstrated policymakers have “sacrifice[d] truth in sentencing to achieve a quick result,” contending that the JRI reform package “only exacerbated” previous problems with sentencing. That contention omits the facts of Rizzuto’s release — and misses the profound economic and societal benefits of giving someone a second chance.
As the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc recently pointed out, Louisiana’s reforms only moved up Rizzuto’s release date by roughly two months. The choice to order that Rizzuto’s multiple felony and misdemeanor counts be served concurrently was not required under the new law. Rather, it was State District Judge Ben Willard who deemed this the appropriate punishment. Additionally, it was the District Attorney (DA) who allowed Rizzuto to receive credit for his time spent behind bars prior to sentencing, as DAs often do – this was not mandated due to JRI reforms. While the attempt to use Rizzuto’s case as an example of ill-fated reform may have been successful in provoking an emotional response from the public, in reality, it does not provide a well-grounded argument against recent criminal justice reforms.
In contrast, John Trahan’s story provides a meaningful argument for the benefits of reform.
Less than a decade ago, John was sentenced to 20 years after being found guilty of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. With freedom in the distant future, John committed himself to paying his penance and serving his time. He found God, participated in a work-release program, and became well-regarded for his positive attitude. As a result of his good behavior, John’s release date was moved to August 2018.
However, thanks to Louisiana’s reforms, John was able to leave prison almost a year earlier and return to his community a better man than he left it. He now attends a local church and works full-time for his previous work-release supervisor, Collis Temple Jr. According to Temple, John is a “model citizen” and a perfect illustration of why society should give those who have been convicted of a crime a second chance: “The reality is that people like John who’ve made mistakes, it’s important and imperative that we give them a holistic opportunity to come back to society […].”
John’s story and the story of so many others who have been released thanks to these reforms provide clear examples of why similar reforms have been happening across the country and continue to be absolutely necessary.
There is still much work to be done, but these reforms are beginning to make an impact. Already, fewer persons convicted of nonviolent offenses are being needlessly sent to prison. Probation and parole caseloads are decreasing, which (when paired with evidence-based supervisions techniques) results in better reentry outcomes. And Louisiana has saved $12.2 million in the past year alone because reformers chose to prioritize individual transformation over perennial incarceration.
While critics decry Louisiana policymakers for not investing more resources into rehabilitative programming, they fail to acknowledge that a significant portion of the savings from recent reforms are intended to be used exactly for that purpose. Over $8.5 million is expected to be reinvested into the justice system, with $1.7 million currently slated for victim s’ services.
Cementing positive criminal justice reform continues to be challenging. The old “tough on crime” rhetoric runs deep, and the “smart on crime” response has only recently found its base. It is vital, therefore, that states such as Louisiana continue to push for changes that award those who have demonstrated positive transformation. Policymakers must work to continue reforming the system until it has met its goal: promoting public safety while preserving the utmost respect for human dignity — and giving a second chance to those like John who’ve earned it.