“We want to make sure we’re not just doing the same thing over and over again, because that’s the definition of insanity, right?”
Cut taxes. Preserve property rights. Champion the second amendment. And…reform the justice system?
It may seem like an odd combination for a Louisiana politician, but for Julie Emerson, a state representative from Lafayette and St. Landry parishes, it’s a winning one. Emerson ran for office in 2015 against a Democrat incumbent at the age of 27. She won and has brought a fresh perspective to the statehouse -- and to the most challenging justice reform battle in the country.
For a long time, Louisiana has stood out in the justice reform conversation. While neighboring Texas and nearby Georgia embraced a smart-on-crime approach to their justice systems, Louisiana lagged behind. The state is renowned for vibrant multiculturalism, lush wildlife, and resilience in the aftermath of disaster. But it is also infamous for being the nation’s lead incarcerator, with the highest rate of incarceration in a country that already leads the world.
Emerson, a true believer in limited government, couldn’t understand why the state’s political establishment clung to the mantra of “tough on crime,” vastly expanding the footprint of correctional control, even though neighboring states had proven that such policies wasted taxpayer dollars and created devastating cycles of recidivism. Rep. Emerson understood that Baton Rouge’s tired approach of conflating harsh sentencing with public safety wasn’t helping in Louisiana.
Since her election to the Louisiana State Legislature, Emerson has devoted her time and energy to supporting legislation that makes the justice system fairer, more efficient and one that ensures that taxpayer resources are not being wasted on perpetuating cycles of incarceration. Her first big achievement was in crossing the aisle by writing landmark Ban-the-Box legislation in 2016, which prohibits state agencies from inquiring about prior criminal history on initial applications for employment. This legislation was in line with developments made in states like Georgia, Connecticut, Texas, and Ohio to improve opportunities by lowering barriers to employment for people with a criminal record.
During the 2017 legislative session, Emerson played a key role in pushing for the 10-bill justice reform package that was passed into law and signed by Governor John Bel Edwards in June, 2017. Emerson specifically authored and introduced HB 519, which limited the ability of state occupational licensing authorities to deny otherwise qualified candidates on the basis of a previous criminal conviction. The package is expected to lower Louisiana’s prison population by 10 percent in 10 years and avert $262 million in additional prison spending, 70 percent of which will be redirected into helping crime victims and helping people transition back into society after leaving prison. In the midst of budgetary shortfalls and reduced revenue, Louisiana is following in the footsteps of Texas and Georgia by turning to justice reform as a way to trim the budget, make communities safer, put people to work, and strengthen families.
“Across the board, we’re trying to look at ways not just to be the party of ‘no,’ but be the party of solutions,” Emerson said. “We want to make sure we’re not just doing the same thing over and over again, because that’s the definition of insanity, right?”
In addition to HB 519, Emerson joined 50 of her House colleagues from both sides of the aisle to co-sponsor HB 688, which limits the ability of state universities and public postsecondary programs to be influenced by someone’s prior criminal history prior to accepting them for admission. The Center for Community Alternatives conducted a study finding that two-thirds of applicants with a felony conviction left their applications incomplete when forms enquired about their criminal history. Emerson’s legislation takes on this problem by banning the box – except with regard to violent or sexual offenses – so that universities can no longer refuse to admit an applicant on the basis of a checkmark.
Ultimately, however, it is not just the fiscal values that drive Emerson’s commitment to justice reform. When speaking on a justice reform panel at CPAC this year, she shared what makes her continue to press for change in Louisiana.
“It stems from [a fiscal conservatism] initially, but when you look at the other things we’re involved in from a standpoint of family values, we want to be able to put these individuals back with their families,” she said. “We find that…you have a lot of single moms out there, the children don’t get to interact with their fathers as much, so we want to get them back with their family. And we believe in redemption. Look, we don’t want violent criminals roaming the streets, but for the lesser crimes, you want to be able to give those individuals a chance at redemption.”
Reform efforts in a state like Louisiana certainly require a long and gradual process, but millennials in elective office, like Julie Emerson, are showing the world that conservative values and justice reform are not only compatible, but they’re getting the job done.