- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - In his campaign for governor, Republican David Vitter is raising the specter of crime committed by released prisoners, putting a partisan spin on an effort that has bipartisan support to overhaul criminal sentencing laws.

Vitter, a U.S. senator, is running a TV ad that says his Democratic opponent John Bel Edwards wants to release “dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhoods.”

He ties Edwards, a state representative who leads Vitter in the polls, to President Barack Obama, who has championed efforts to lessen penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. Vitter accuses both men of pushing to put criminals back on the streets.

Vitter rejected calls to take down the ad, which has been criticized as “race baiting.” In an email to supporters this week, Vitter doubled down on the claims: “Louisiana is currently experiencing an increase in crime, and we cannot afford more criminals in our communities.”

While Vitter is attempting to frame the issue as Republican vs. Democrat, it hasn’t been a strictly partisan debate in Louisiana or Washington.

Louisiana is spending more than $500 million this year on the state corrections department, plus another $161 million paid to parish sheriffs for housing state inmates. More than 37,000 inmates are in state custody, according to corrections department data.

The state’s ongoing efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent, non-sex offenders have been backed by Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature and by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, trying to cut prison costs in a state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Congress also is considering sentencing cuts for nonviolent drug offenders, in a rare bipartisan approach.

In his ad and his email to supporters, Vitter claims Obama is behind the release of more than 6,000 federal inmates.

However, the inmates being released this month, likely to be followed by thousands more, are benefiting from drug sentencing changes made last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The commission reduced the ranges for drug offenses and allowed the changes to be applied to people already in prison - if federal judges agree to the sentence reductions.

Vitter also takes issue with a speech Edwards made at Southern University, in which he talked of moving Louisiana from the nation’s top-ranking incarceration rate. To drop to second, Edwards said, requires a reduction of 5,500 inmates.

“We don’t need to pick an arbitrary number and release 5,500 criminals from our prisons. I think that’s a completely irresponsible proposal,” Vitter told reporters at a campaign rally. He said he’s talked to district attorneys “who don’t feel you can get anywhere near there in a responsible way.”

Edwards, whose family has produced several Tangipahoa Parish sheriffs - including the current one, defended his criminal sentencing proposals, saying he wants to beef up pre-trial diversion programs, change sentences for nonviolent offenders and improve rehabilitation programs.

“I have suggested a comprehensive plan to reducing the prison population over time by preventing recidivism that occurs when first-time nonviolent offenders spend years locked up with hardened, violent criminals,” Edwards said in a statement.

Vitter, in his written policy platform on crime, has also described proposals for “reforming criminal justice so we don’t warehouse young, nonviolent offenders with hardened criminals.”

Asked whether he supported the approach the Legislature has taken so far and if he thinks sentences should be reduced for nonviolent drug offenders, Vitter directed reporters to his written plan, which doesn’t directly address sentencing changes, but talks of increasing education and skills training for inmates and work release programs.

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