Kennedy introduces amendment to bipartisan criminal justice reform bill

Kennedy introduces amendment to bipartisan criminal justice reform bill
Sen. John Kennedy speaks on the floor of the United States Senate Tuesday to voice opposition to the criminal justice reforms in Louisiana. (Sen. John Kennedy)

WASHINGTON, DC (KSLA) - Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, introduced an amendment Thursday to the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill that’s dividing Republicans in Congress despite support from President Donald Trump.

Kennedy, a vocal critic of Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice reform measures, has voiced concern about the bipartisan bill, which would change some sentencing laws to lower the mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses and make thousands of federal prisoners eligible for early release.

“The First Step Act is a violation of American public safety” said Kennedy in a statement. “This is not a criminal justice bill. It is a prisoner release bill. We should be protecting victims of crimes and not the offenders who committed the crimes."

The amendment, introduced with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, would require victims to be notified before an offender is released and would force the Bureau of Prisons to track recidivism data. It would also add nine crimes that the senators describe as “serious, violent, or sex-related” to the “ineligible prisoners” list, excluding prisoners convicted of those crimes from early release.

“I think our amendment will fix some of the issues with the legislation,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy spoke with KSLA News 12 Thursday, after giving an impassioned speech on the Senate floor about the historic reform efforts in Louisiana.

The Senator described the state’s reforms as a “disaster.”

“I think it’s been a complete failure,” said Kennedy. “I believe in second chances, but they need to be careful about who they let go. I don’t believe in giving a criminal a second chance to commit a crime,” he added.

Kennedy cited the murders of Kelly and Heather Jose, who were found in a burning car on Penick Street in Shreveport on Thursday, November 8 as an example of the reform’s shortcomings.

Dewayne Willie Watkins, who has a long rap sheet with 21 arrests, has been charged in connection of the Jose’s deaths. Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator held a news conference on December 6 to denounce the state’s criminal justice laws that allowed Watkins to be released early for good behavior.

The Senator echoed those concerns on Thursday.

“Under Gov. Edwards’ criminal release program, the Department of Corrections let [Watkins] out early. Two people offered him a ride, trying to be good Samaritans. He repaid their generosity by kidnapping these two people, he shot them, and he burned them to death in their own car,” he said.

Department of Corrections Secretary James Le Blanc, in a letter responding to Sheriff Prator’s concerns, said “DOC was mandated by law to release Watkins to good time parole supervision on September 1, 2018.” Le Blanc says Watkins never entered a state prison, serving all of his time in Parish jails.

“One can assume he had virtually no access to rehabilitative programming. This prisoner is a poster child for why we are reforming our local level prison operation,” said Le Blanc in the letter.

According to Kennedy, 22 percent of the prisoners released in Louisiana have been rearrested in the 14 months since their release. That’s less than half of the national recidivism rate after one year, according to the National Institute of Justice.

While Louisiana maintained the highest murder rate in the country in 2017, overall violent crime rates are down in the state. FBI crime data shows the rate of violent crime dropped 1.5 percent from 2016 to 2017. In Shreveport, there were fewer violent crimes in the first ten months of 2018 than in 2017. Crime data for November is not yet available.

The Senate has a procedural vote on the First Step Act scheduled for Monday. If at least 60 senators vote for the bill, lawmakers will have a chance to consider Kennedy’s amendment before holding a final vote.

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