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Vulnerable Edwards seeking reform compromise

What may appear as negligence and ineptitude to some in fact shows a politically realistic strategy for Louisiana’s Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and his endangered reelection chances.

Well past the halfway point of his term, Edwards has little to show for his time in office. He said he would put the state on firm financial footing, but all he did was raise taxes and spend more while failing to stop chronic budget shortfalls. He made more people eligible for free government-run health care, but even a report that overestimates its benefits and underestimates its costs can’t hide the fact Edwards raised taxes to support an expensive new entitlement, the benefits of which won’t exceed the costs, for a number of people who could pay for their own insurance anyway.

His most significant, potentially positive achievement therefore comes from criminal justice reforms, comprised of a series of shortening sentences, increasing use of parole and probation, and instituting administrative changes that had the effect of reducing the jailed population size. As long as those changes don’t permit more criminal activity while reducing costs, he can claim policy victory and hang his hat on that for reelection purposes.

Whether disproportionately higher recidivism, more successful rehabilitation, and lower costs result from it not enough data has accumulated to verify that. Anecdotal evidence, however, gives ammunition to critics who point out the backwards nature of the effort: rather than investing first to support an infrastructure that makes the beneficiaries of less jail time less likely to reoffend, Edwards promoted policy that freed them first and only later promises to pump money into keeping them out of orange jumpsuits.

To dull the critiques, Edwards and allies of the effort now seek to fine-tune the changes, and to wit lumped modifications altogether into Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor’s SB 389. Among other things, it allows for probation’s extension from three to five years when violated, makes more certain payment of restitution to victims, and revises good time credit calculations.

The bill passed out of Senate committee last week, but not without complaints. Some lawmakers, echoing interest groups that typically argue for more leniency for criminals, said they needed more time to study the alterations. The groups themselves feared these would undermine the reforms from last year, and castigated Edwards for not having them participate in the negotiations that produced the bill.

For his part, an Edwards spokesman said the governor knew tweaks would have to come to the package and insisted they had relayed these to the special interests. But even those working with him on the deal such as Claitor said the Governor’s Office had done a “terrible job” communicating with him and those other groups.

But Edwards shouldn’t care if he burns his usual ideological allies on this issue. In the shadow of a term with far more policy defeats than victories, he needs to quell criticism of his most saleable achievement to date. If that takes throwing them overboard, he’ll need to do it.

Yet just as Edwards will need to sideline his ideology to secure a resumé-building win, he will have to hope his ideological opponents won’t wish to sabotage the effort to deny him that. It appears that he has a deal with those who would make more sweeping changes, such as GOP state Rep. Sherman Mack whose HB 195 would increase the probation period to five years without strings.

Likely his critics would take some of what they can get. However, they could gamble for more, in pushing for changes less tepid than those endorsed by Edwards and, in the best of worlds, force a bill to his desk with those, daring a veto. That puts them in the position where they can score a policy win or, failing that, make Edwards look too doctrinaire in favoring criminals’ rights that further deflates his reelection chances. But if they can’t, then they lose the opportunity to ameliorate the effects of what they see as bad law although it keeps alive a valid critique of his policy output.

Thus, whether something like SB 389 makes it into law depends on how much each side needs a deal and whether they feel dealing away too much reduces the odds of their preferred future electoral outcome.

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