Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Republican David Vitter's first television ad against his Nov. 21 runoff opponent,Democrat John Bel Edwards, takes aim at Edwards' position on criminal justice. The ad claims Edwards, who is being backed by the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, wants to release “5,500 violent thugs” from prison, a position that Edwards says has been misconstrued and taken out of context. The Acadiana, La., Advocate, says candidates support some form of prison reform, including the expansion of early release programs for nonviolent offenders. Edwards and Vitter won the top two spots in Louisiana's Oct. 24 primary, sending them to a head-to-head runoff to succeed Gov. Bobby Jindal, who can't seek re-election because of term limits and is seeking the presidency.
Louisiana has earned the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate. There are nearly twice as many people behind bars in Louisiana per capita as the national average, a total of nearly 40,000 as of last year. The prison system costs Louisiana nearly $350 million a year. It's an issue that the Louisiana legislature has grappled with for several years, slowly winnowing away some of the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements implemented decades ago. “We have to look at proven strategies that have been implemented elsewhere,” Edwards said in an interview. He believes Louisiana should take a serious look at pretrial diversion programs, including sobriety and drug courts, as well as special programs for the mentally ill and veterans. The 5,500 figure, which Edwards has noted in several speeches, is the number of prisoners that puts Louisiana above the state with the No. 2 incarceration rate. He's used it as a hypothetical number that Louisiana would need to reduce by just to get out of the No. 1 spot. “I have never said I have a plan to release anybody,” he said.