Second chances at the intersection of sports and politics in Louisiana

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks during the opening of a special legislative session in the state House chamber in Baton Rouge, La., Feb. 14, 2016.

Zac McCrary, ALG Research

With the Louisiana State University Tigers’ historic win in the College Football National Championship, now is the perfect opportunity to engage in the time-honored tradition of marrying sports to politics. Louisiana has been on the forefront of both in the last few months, and the incredible second chance stories of Coach O and his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow pair well with shifting public opinion on second chances in general, especially in the area of criminal justice reform.

When John Bel Edwards was elected Governor in 2015, Louisiana was nearing its third decade as the “incarceration capital of the world” – with incarceration rates nearly twice the national average due to outdated laws. At the time, more than two-thirds of the state’s prison population had never committed a violent offense. And a high portion of annual prison admissions were due to probation or parole revocations, which could result from even small violations of supervised release. To put it in football terms, Louisiana needed a new playbook.

They got one in the 2015 campaign of then-State Representative Edwards, who committed to shrink the state’s prison population – a pledge that came with considerable political risk for a Deep South Democrat facing a Republican opponent known for running successful attack first, bare-knuckled campaigns. In an unfortunate predictable play call, the Republican candidate, U.S. Senator David Vitter, declared that Edwards intended to “release 5,500 dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhoods." But Edwards’ profile as the son of a Sheriff, a West Point grad, and US Army Ranger helped successfully defend against these “soft on crime” allegations, and he emerged victorious.

The Edwards administration quickly went to work fulfilling his campaign promise to tackle the state’s incarceration problem by forming a bipartisan task force that included those on the front lines of law enforcement, judges, business leaders, and legislators of both parties. The Governor championed the task force’s recommendations and even before halftime of his first term, Edwards’ signed ten criminal justice reform bills, seven of which were sponsored by Republicans. These reforms:

  • largely focused on non-violent and non-sexual offenders;
  • emphasized treatment for drug offenders;
  • steered less serious offenders away from incarceration by reserving mandatory minimums for violent felonies;
  • reduced life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders;
  • reallocated prison spending to public safety initiatives;
  • strengthened alternatives to incarceration; and,
  • removed barriers to re-entry.

Opinion polling conducted by our firm from July 2017 demonstrated this approach to criminal justice reform had a broad fan base in Louisiana. Over 70 percent of Louisiana voters, including overwhelming majorities of both white (67 percent Favor) and African American (85 percent Favor) voters, supported the plan. Reform had universal political support from a majority of Republicans (58 percent Favor), Democrats (84 percent Favor), and Independents (80 percent Favor).

As the plan was implemented, Louisiana made huge strides forward. The state quickly shed its status as America’s leading incarcerator, and was projected to reduce the prison population by 13 percent while saving $305 million in taxpayer money over the next decade. This is funding that will help reinforce Governor Edwards’ other priorities: investing in better schools, healthcare, and infrastructure. Additionally, the most recent FBI crime statistics demonstrate a 3.4 percent drop in the state’s violent crime rate and an 8 percentdrop in the murder rate. This Louisiana success story helped pave the way for the federal First Step Act, passed overwhelming by Congress and signed by President Trump.

But soon the political season circled back, and despite the bipartisan successes, a field of gubernatorial contenders – including the state Attorney General, a U.S. Senator, and both Republican candidates who ultimately filed to run against him—took shots at Governor Edwards for supporting reform. Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry took a particularly alarmist tone, accusing the Governor of a “reckless” approach that prioritized a small prison population over public safety, and the super PAC he controlled ran television ads accusing the Governor of putting lives in danger by letting “thousands of criminals out of jail early.” The Republican candidate, Eddie Rispone, framed the reform efforts as “getting as many people out [of prison] as possible,” promising to “leave forgiveness to God, not government.” Even President Trump, who supported and signed the First Step Act, accused Governor Edwards of being “soft on crime.”

The Edwards’ campaign was ready for these attacks. In addition to aggressive rebuttals in the press, the campaign had a muscular response ad already filmed and ready to push back against the false attacks. This response ad included a series of District Attorneys and Sheriffs who transcended partisan and geographic lines – each of them setting the record straight that criminal justice reform “made Louisiana safer.” In fact, even before the attacks were leveled against the Governor, the campaign had laid an important foundation with an early biographical ad reminding voters that that he grew up in a law enforcement family – raised as the son and grandson of sheriffs – which inspired his own decision to attend West Point and serve as an Airborne Army Ranger.

The voters clearly agreed with Governor Edwards. The campaign’s internal polling closely monitored voter perceptions, and at no time during the campaign did more than 38% of the electorate agree that “John Bel Edwards is soft on crime.” In fact, the Governor’s strength increased as this issue was litigated publicly and the clock ran down to Election Day. In the final poll before the runoff, the Governor reached a high of a 14-point majority who disagreed that he was “soft on crime” (50 percent Disagree / 36 percent Agree). In short, these criminal justice reform-based attacks against the Governor did not draw blood, and ultimately backfired. Governor Edwards’ commitment to criminal justice reform was an important reason he won re-election as a Democratic Governor in a deep red state in the Deep South - the political equivalent of running the table in the SEC. 

A short time later, Louisiana was back in the headlines, as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy. In his acceptance speech, Burrow spoke of the poor area he grew up in, and the second chance he was afforded at LSU. His message that people can rise up and out of their circumstances, if just given the opportunity, seemed to perfectly encapsulate voter sentiments.

As the confetti flies on Victory Hill in Baton Rouge for the Tigers’ championship parade, Louisianans have every reason to celebrate their second chance successes, on and off the field. And just as coaches all over America are looking to replicate Coach O’s game plan, candidates and elected officials would be wise to take a page out of Governor John Bel Edwards’ political playbook. Governor Edwards’ success in Louisiana demonstrates that criminal justice reform can be both winning policy and winning politics anywhere in the country.

 Zac McCrary (@zacmccary) is a partner at ALG Research, a national polling firm whose clients include Governor John Bel Edwards.