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Interview: Gov. Jeff Landry talks special session on crime with Jim Engster

Talk Louisiana

The best way to keep people out of jail? Institute harsher sentences on those who commit crimes.

That’s according to Gov. Jeff Landry, who has convened a special legislative session to pass a series of tough-on-crime laws.

The legislation includes bills that would cut down parole and limit the amount of reduced time incarcerated people can earn for good behavior. Many of the bills being proposed would undo the sweeping criminal justice reforms made under the administration of former-Gov. John Bel Edwards, which reduced Louisiana’s nation-leading prison population and saved taxpayers nearly $153 million, according to a recent state audit.

Landry is a former state congressman who served eight years as attorney general before winning the governorship outright in October's primary. He joined host Jim Engster on Talk Louisiana to discuss his crime agenda, the state’s new congressional map and more.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Jim Engster: Good morning to you, Governor Landry, on your 47th day in office.

Gov. Jeff Landry: Jim, I’m glad somebody's counting. I want to let you know I'm so disappointed I didn't get to go in studio. In fact, I dressed up just for you today and then they told me I had to do this by phone. So I figured, look, we're going to do another one when Easter comes, and I can get in one of my bright suits.

Engster: Well, I look forward to that. That's a deal. I always enjoy talking to Governor Landry and as you can hear him through the phone lines, I think he's probably the funniest governor, despite some people who might think otherwise, since Edwin Edwards. And you were born in December of 1970, shortly before the rise of the Cajun Prince.

I'm sure in some ways he had to rub off on you, even though your politics are somewhat different.

Landry: They are, but you're right. I mean, you know, I got to spend some time under Governor Edwards in his last term, when Craig Romero had gotten to the Senate and I worked for Craig, and certainly was able to catch the tail end of that.

And of course, I'm a ferocious reader, and read a lot about both American and Louisiana history. In fact, I just finished this short book on Huey Long written by this fellow who's over at the University of Virginia that was given to me by Joe Warren, who is a friend of mine from D.C., a friend of Sharon and I’s.

And a great book. Maybe I'll get you a copy of it. Really. It's not a long read, but it's extremely fascinating. And so, no, I enjoy Louisiana history and I enjoy U.S. history. I think Louisiana history is better than U.S. history. It's a lot more colorful, right?

Engster: Well, I enjoyed your inaugural speech, and I remember Bill Clinton was the only governor who came from another state when Buddy Romer was inaugurated, and Romer of course had the brass to invite all 49 other governors.

But Clinton showed, and I remember Clinton just marveling at Romer's professed love for his state, which was genuine. He said, “It's the purdiest state in America. I love Louisiana.” And you said if you had how many lives to live, you would want to live them all in Louisiana, correct? Landry: Yeah, if I had thousands of lives to live again and again and again, I'd always want to live in Louisiana.

I mean, it's true. I mean, of course, it's kind of hard to take that out of me. I mean, our families have been here, both of my mom and dad's side since the mid 1700s. So, you know, I mean, at that point, the place has to grow on you, you know, genetically.

Engster: It does. No doubt. It's in our blood.

And in New Orleans, which is the crown jewel of our state, you have obviously accented that city. Other governors have not and you are different in that respect. But you are addressing crime in this special session, and much of it is directed at New Orleans, which is still the bellwether for the rest of our state.

You noted in your column, which I read with interest in The Advocate and Picayune prior to the session, that one of every 14 black men in New Orleans will be murdered before he reaches the age of 35. Now that's a sobering statistic, and tragically, I believe it to be true. What is the root cause of this in your judgment?

Landry: Well, look, there's a lot of reasons that crime has been running rampant. Okay. And certainly in New Orleans as well, you know, eight years ago when I became the attorney general, I was asked by a number of stakeholders to go to New Orleans and assist the state police because that's when crime had really started taking back a foothold inside the Quarter, and the Central Business District. And I realized then, of course, from my time as a sheriff deputy and police officer, and then in the military as a military police officer, that what had happened has been that we have dispatched the state police into those two areas to root out or to ferret out or to basically what happens is push out crime.

But then the crime is only pushed out. The criminals just go to the fringe part of it, which pushes them into neighborhoods where a lot of people don't have the means to be able to safeguard themselves as well and where the law enforcement may not be as robust as when you send the state police in. And this was eight years ago, and since then I've always said that if I had an opportunity that we would work to secure the entire city.

Because I do. I believe that where goes New Orleans, where goes the state. A lot of people from the state of Louisiana, and their disdain for the city is mostly in the fact that they recognize the beauty and the opportunity in New Orleans, and the fact that you can just go to New Orleans instead of having to travel way far around the country, and find some of the greatest opportunities and enjoy themselves in a vacation.

But it irritates them that they go there and they watch their tax dollars, or they can't go there anymore, when they know that money coming out of their pocket is going into that city, and they're getting nothing for it. Now, if the city's safe, and the city's robust, and people can go in and out, and tourism and entertainment is thriving, well then the local citizens from around the state who go there feel like there is some worth.

And it's hard time that we do that. I mean, listen, the city has been out of control for quite some time, and we're going to methodically work to make that city a safe city, which I think then brings economic opportunity to the city. And hopefully restore it to a great city.

Engster: Today in the newspaper of record, The Picayune and Advocate: stricter sentencing legislation advancing measures that would make codes tougher than before 2017's justice reform took effect. Now when your predecessor took office, he had some sweeping crime legislation that was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. But have you taken pause with some of the outcomes? Do you think it's worked?

Landry: I don't. I mean, I really have to search to think of what parts of what they did have actually been meaningful. I think the biggest problem is the goal. When they set the goal, the goal was to reduce Louisiana's prison population. That means in layman's term, or like a country boy like me, that you want to let people out of jail, is the only way to reduce prison population. The goal in reforming the criminal justice system should never be about letting people out of jail. It should be about how you keep people from going to jail. I mean jail is a place that you don't want to go, and if you're in jail you did something that you shouldn't have. And so you shouldn't be just being let out.

I think that that was part of the problem. Now you say, well, how do you keep people from going to jail? Well, one, stiffer penalties certainly enhance that. Look, I used to do this, Jim. I used to love to do this. I'd speak in front of big crowds. And I'd ask all the women in the crowd to raise their hand if any of them have raised children. And they'd raise their hand.

And I say, well, look, don't you have rules in your house? And don't you have a method of enforcing those rules? And certainly if you have a husband in the house, you got rules for him too. You may have a different way of enforcing those rules. But either way, the severity of the rule that you set and the severity of the way that you break it determines the level of enforcing or punishing you for breaking that particular rule.

We saw, back in the seventies, during the second opioid epidemic in the country, Louisiana had a huge heroin problem. They went in and they said, if you are caught with an ounce of heroin, you're going to jail for life.

And within a decade, I remember as a sheriff's deputy in the late eighties, I never ever saw heroin again. Yet we relaxed those rules, and all of a sudden we got another problem. Now there's a little more complexities to that, which we could talk about on another day.

But first of all, you have to lay the rule of law down and it is not optional. And then you have to work to ensure that the sentence fits the crime. And that as people come out of the system, they're more adept at being able to come back into society.

Engster: Before we go back to crime, some would say it's kind of bold for a Republican governor to be out in front on a congressional map that could be detrimental to at least one Republican in the delegation. Your thoughts, Governor Landry?

Landry: Well, Jim first of all, you know, and this is kind of part and parcel to what we talked about on crime and the rule of law.

I mean, look, we have to respect the decisions that the courts have made. As attorney general, we defended the congressional maps that the Legislature had put forth. And we did so all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. And when those maps came down from the United States Supreme Court and when the Fifth Circuit basically paved the way for the federal judge here in Baton Rouge to redraw the congressional districts, but gave the Legislature a window of opportunity to do its job, I mean, we really had no choice. And when you're faced with no choice, and you got to make a big decision, sometimes the law doesn't give you the results that you like, and you don't have the ability to just ignore it.

And so we went out there and put the Legislature through a redistricting session. It was not easy. Redistricting is definitely, it's never easy. It is probably one of the most difficult things that legislators do. But look, I will tell you, I was proud of the Republicans in Louisiana and all of Louisiana, irrespective of your party affiliation, should be proud of them.

They did not do what the Republicans in Alabama did. They did not thumb their nose at the federal courts only for the federal courts to come in and smack them. We worked together and we found a way to abide by the court’s edicts. And we got a map passed. And so look, we were able to do what the Democrats never have been able to do.

Engster: I've noted that I don't think a Democratic governor could have done this. That's why it was a bit unusual that you led the charge. But you're saying that you did it because you had to, or because it was the right thing, or both?

Landry: Well, I think when the courts tell you something, that has to be the right thing to do. I mean, just because you disagree with it doesn't make it not right.

And so when the courts came out and kind of basically showed us what was going to happen. You know, I explained that to the Republicans on both the House and the Senate side. And we went out there and tried to draw maps that truly reflected the state of Louisiana and abiding by the courts. And I'm satisfied.

Look, I want to dispose of all the federal litigation. You know what I mean, Jim? I hate to be underneath the federal courts. It is extremely costly. It costs us time, not only money, but time, time that could better be served working to keep our state safe, reforming our educational system, creating more job opportunities.

And so I was glad to move that off the table.

Engster: Do you think it will withstand a court challenge?

Landry: I do. I do. I mean, there's one or two things that are gonna happen. Either it will withstand the court challenge. And we now have some good, clear rules to draw by. Or the Supreme Court will once and for all give us more clarity on how states are supposed to draw congressional districts.

So it's gonna be one or the other. This is one of the cases, and these are one of the maps, that is going to bring some finality to a vexing question that has evaded legislatures around the country. And so, I do. I think it'll withstand the scrutiny.

Engster: A few things about the special crime session: Expansion of concealed carry to any law-abiding citizen having that right. You're in favor of that, and it looks like the inertia is headed in that direction. And also starting to execute people. We haven't put a prisoner to death in Louisiana in more than 14 years. So why are you on the side of law and order on those measures, which of course, as you know, have a few people who are naysayers.

Landry: Well, I mean, I don't see any correlation between law and order and not allowing the Second Amendment to be exercised. I mean, look, 27 other states have these laws. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, every state around us has a constitutional carry. Every one. Every one of them has had it around us. Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee. All states that seem to have better crime statistics than us. All states that have better economic metrics than us.

And so this argument that constitutional carry some kind of way doesn't in any way help or that it's gonna only enhance some of the problems we have in Louisiana, I think I can only as a good lawyer give you Exhibit A. Or we can go to B, C, and D. We can name each state individually in the exhibit.

I think it's a lot of nothing. And it also irritates me because criminals carry guns no matter what. And so why should law-abiding citizens need the government's permission to exercise their right?

They're shown to be the most law abiding citizens out there. And I asked a friend of mine who had been in law enforcement all his life. If he had ever gone after someone or investigated a homicide under which he ended up finding the perpetrator to have a concealed carry permit. He said never. So, I rest my case.

Engster: A listener asks, should we have guns available at the Capitol? Right now, if you're a citizen, you're checked. Is that a bridge too far?

Landry: That's a question for the Legislature and the security of the Capitol. I mean, we have gun free zones. You can't carry a gun in a bar. You can't have a gun on a parade route in Louisiana. Again, this doesn't mean that you could just carry your gun wherever you want. There are places under which the Legislature, through public opinion and persuasion, have determined that you shouldn't have a gun. And they passed legislation as such. And I don't have a problem with that.

Engster: Okay. Death penalty: you made a made a case that I think that those who were on the side of capital punishment, one that perhaps is the most persuasive argument, that you view this as a pact between the courts and the government and the victim's families and friends who lost loved ones. Tell us more.

Landry: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people out there trying to confuse the issues. What's being debated at the Legislature is not the death penalty. Okay? If they want to debate the death penalty, somebody can file a bill to abolish it, and they can go and discuss that. And we can have a difference of opinion on that.

But that's not what’s at question here. The question right now is fulfilling the law. Okay, the law is on the books. We don't get to pick and choose which laws we follow and don't follow. It's not how it's supposed to work. We've got a bad law, we get to fix it. The Legislature does that. And so we've had families, I mean, some of the most heinous crimes. And the path by which these families travel, and the pain and the time that they endure and the resolve that they take for their day of justice is something that the state should fulfill, and that's my position.

Engster: Okay quickly we'll take a call or two, but you got to be concise. Let's go to Patricia in Baton Rouge, Patricia. Good morning.

Patricia: Good morning, Governor. Thanks for your work on improving crime in Louisiana. I know someone who was arrested. He was having a mental health crisis. He had schizophrenia and had to get a lawyer. And I was wondering if you had plans to improve the ability of people to get treated for mental health.

Engster: All right. What about mental health treatment, governor?

Landry: Patricia's question is great because it gives me an opportunity to highlight the other side of both our criminal justice reform and some of the things that are important to us.

Mental health is a complete crisis, not only in the state. But in the country as well, even on the campaign trail, we talked about it. We are going to continue to look for ways to improve services for mental health. We certainly do not want those with mental health problems completely integrated into the prison population.

Engster: Well, we do have to roll, governor, but thanks for joining us and we'll be calling again and look forward to that visit around Easter time in your bright, probably blue, suit. Thank you, sir.

This story was produced for web by Garrett Hazelwood and Aubri Juhasz.