The Louisiana State Capitol. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

Gov. John Bel Edwards should veto around a dozen criminal-justice-related bills passed during the 2023 legislative session, say several civil-rights and criminal-justice-reform organizations, who sent a letter to Edwards, arguing that the bills would roll back some of the landmark reforms passed during his administration. 

The groups — including the ACLU of Louisiana, Voice of the Experienced, and the Promise of Justice Initiative, and the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — identified 13 bills that merited a gubernatorial veto. If not, they argued, the result “would harm Louisiana’s families and youth” and  “return individuals to burdensome and unnecessarily long sentences of incarceration.”

“The data continues to show that these long terms of incarceration make our state less safe, not safer,” the advocates wrote.

Among the endangered reforms mentioned in the letter are the Raise the Age Act, which mandated that 17-year-olds be considered juveniles in the criminal legal system, and the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a package of bills intended to reduce the state prison population and reinvest money into re-entry programing and victim services. 

In 2016, Edwards ran for governor promising that the state of Louisiana would no longer have the highest rate of incarceration in the country. Toward that goal, he signed into law a number of bipartisan justice-reform laws early in his first term. He continues to tout the success of those efforts, even as Republican legislators and Attorney General Jeff Landry have taken aim at them, claiming they are to blame for increased crime across the state.

The deadline to veto the remaining bills on his desk is July 2, but all legislation was likely to be acted on by the end of the day on Friday, June 30, said gubernatorial spokesman Eric Holl. 

Despite the groups’ opposition, Edwards has already signed four of the bills, which:

  • mandate prison time for defendants convicted of multiple simple burglaries, as a “part of a continuous sequence of events”
  • add carjacking to a list of juvenile charges where judges are barred from modifying the sentence and releasing a child before that child has served three years in a secure-care facility
  • increase the penalties for fentanyl distribution
  • allow for booking photographs to be released publicly if requested by law enforcement for a bail bond company, or if law-enforcement agencies deem “that releasing or disseminating the booking photograph is necessary for investigative purposes.”

Edwards has also vetoed one bill, which prohibited citizens, if asked by an officer, from getting within 25 feet of a law enforcement officer engaged in “lawful duties.” Citizens expressed concern that they would be blocked from videotaping officers engaged in rogue activities.

But he is still considering whether to sign some major legislation, including SB 159, sponsored by Rep. Stewart Cathey, Republican from Monroe, which would send any 17-year-old accused of a crime of violence into the adult criminal-legal system. 

Defendants who were 17 were long considered adults in the criminal-legal system across the country. They were sent to adult prisons and tried in the adult court system. But most other states increased the age to 18. By the time Edwards took office, the state was an outlier. Only nine other states presumptively tried 17-year-olds as adults. In 2016, after being lobbied by buses of teenagers who testified on the topic, the legislature, with Edwards’ backing, raised the age of juveniles in the legal system to 18. 

Implementation of the 2016 law was phased in, taking full effect in August of 2020.

As in most states, Louisiana prosecutors can still choose to charge juveniles as adults for certain violent offenses.

Some local sheriffs and district attorneys have blamed the law for a rise in crime across the state, and for violent incidents in juvenile-justice facilities now charged with holding 17-year-olds that used to be housed in adult jails. 

The justice-reform organizations, however, are urging Edwards to reject that rhetoric:  and the bill.

“The (Raise the Age) process took four years,” the letter reads. “This bill is not a response to an emergent issue. It is a cynical, illegal, and expensive instrument.”

The groups are also urging Edwards to reject another bill, which would dramatically reduce good-time credit for people who have been convicted of four non-violent felonies. Before becoming eligible for parole, such defendants will need to serve twice as much “good time,” which the law defines as “a diminution of sentence by good behavior and performance of work or self-improvement activities.” Instead of being eligible after serving 25 percent of their sentence, the bill moves that minimum time served to 65 percent of their sentence.

Edwards vetoed a nearly identical bill last year, calling it a “significant rollback” of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and “a step in the wrong direction.” 

The groups noted that the bill was focused only on those charged with nonviolent offenses, including addicts charged with drug-possession charges. “In the midst of a surging opioid epidemic, we must not repeat the mistakes of the failed War on Drugs by spending millions of dollars incarcerating addicts over and over,” the letter reads. “There is so much good that can be done with the several million dollars required by this bill that could help Louisianans struggling with addiction, but this bill only causes harm to addicts and their families.”

In the letter, the groups argue that many of the legislators involved in passing this year’s bills weren’t around in 2016 and 2017. As a result, they write, the new legislators do not understand the positive impacts of the Justice Reinvestment Act and Raise the Age. Instead, they are using the two pieces of landmark legislation as scapegoats.

The advocacy groups contrasted the new legislators’ lack of understanding of the reforms with the governor’s sophistication in such matters. “Simply put, (the legislators) lack the proper context and background to appreciate the enormity of their decisions,” the letter to the governor reads. “You, on the other hand, thankfully, do not.” 

Holl, the spokesperson for Edwards, declined to give any indication of how the governor would act on any of the remaining bills. 

“All bills are under consideration until we take action,” he said.

The other groups that signed the letter are: Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, Louisiana Progress, Louisiana Survivors for Reform, Justice Accountability Center, Justice Collaborative, and the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.

This story was updated to include all the names of the organizations that signed the letter.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...