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Gov. Jeff Landry uplifted victims of violent crime and pledged to punish criminals in a fiery speech Monday outlining conservatives’ ambitious plan to reshape Louisiana’s criminal justice system.

Launching a special session of the Legislature, which Landry had called to fulfill his campaign promise of cracking down on lawlessness, the Republican governor urged lawmakers to approve a slate of tough-on-crime bills. The package of legislation that trimmed Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation prison rolls over the past seven years and saved the state nearly $153 million, according to a new audit.

Landry’s voice neared a yell as he lambasted liberal activists, the state’s bipartisan 2017 criminal justice laws and violent criminals themselves for what he described as a rash of crime engulfing the state – a trend he pledged the laws under consideration will reverse, despite evidence that longer prison terms do little to deter crime.

The state’s justice system has “lost balance,” the governor said on the state House floor.

“The steps we take to restore that balance are difficult to accept for some,” Landry said. “However, when promises are made to a victim’s family and friends, granting them that justice, restores balance.”

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Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry addresses members of the House and Senate on opening day of a legislative special session focusing on crime, Monday, February 19, 2024, in the House Chamber at the Louisiana State Capitol in Ϳʷ¼, La.

Landry’s words marked the start of a 17-day special session that experts, advocates and law enforcement officials agree will be transformative to the ways Louisiana adjudicates and punishes people convicted of crimes.

Bills up for debate include measures to revoke almost all prisoners’ access to parole, slash opportunities for post-conviction sentencing relief and limit early release based on good behavior. Other legislation would expand qualified immunity for police officers and allow the state to resume the death penalty via nitrogen hypoxia and electrocution.

Yet another would make public a swath of juvenile court records in an effort to make evidence more accessible to victims — a proposal that critics call racist because they argue it would affect mostly majority-Black cities.

Watching from the House gallery as Landry delivered his address Monday were victims of several recent high-profile acts of violence, many of whom stood and applauded along with Republican lawmakers during Landry’s speech.

“The speech was very positive, very uplifting,” said Jinnylynn Griffin, the sister of New Orleans , endorsing another Landry bill that would try more 17-year-olds as adults. “We’ve lost control.”

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Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry gestures to the balcony as he addresses members of the House and Senate on opening day of a legislative special session focusing on crime, Monday, February 19, 2024, in the House Chamber at the Louisiana State Capitol in Ϳʷ¼, La.

Democrats, who face Republican supermajorities in both the House and Senate, mostly remained seated and did not clap during Landry’s speech. Later, they convened a press conference and voiced a host of objections to the session’s approach. Chief among them were frustrations with the rationale for Landry’s proposed legislation.

“Passing the toughest sentences possible may make crime victims feel good, but they do nothing to actually prevent people from becoming victims of crime in the future,” Rep. Matt Willard, D-New Orleans and the Democrats’ House leader, said in an interview.

Willard sought to stall on the House floor as Republicans started reading in bills for the session. Each time House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, entertained motions to speed bills along by sending them directly to committees, Willard rose his arm in objection, forcing another vote.

The House’s Republican supermajority had no trouble securing the 70 votes needed to suspend House rules so they could usher the bills along.

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Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, speaks at the podium as members of the Legislative Black Caucus and Democrats from the House and Senate hold a press conference on opening day of a legislative special session focusing on crime, Monday, February 19, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Ϳʷ¼, La.

Democrats contended that Landry’s office did not seek their input about the session’s agenda — a claim denied by Landry’s press secretary, Kate Kelly, who said the governor “consulted with victims of crimes from all political affiliations” to craft his proposals. Several Democrats filed bills that were rejected because they were deemed irrelevant to Landry’s 24-point call for the special session, said Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, the Senate’s Democratic leader.

New Orleans delegation members slammed Landry’s characterization of crime in their home districts, saying he had not engaged with them over how to best approach the city’s issues. Landry’s speech to the city, which he routinely describes as awash in lawlessness. Though homicides in New Orleans surged during the pandemic, they dropped last year, according to data maintained by The Advocate | The Times-Picayune.

"Restoring the city of New Orleans and the safety in it is a tide that will lift all boats in the state," Landry said. "It is time to secure that entire city."

Some of the governor’s proposals could carry substantial price tags. A measure to eliminate parole for most prisoners, House Bill 9, comes with a projected yearly cost of $14 million, according to legislative analysts. Another to increase jail terms for carjacking, HB7, is expected to cost $11 million annually. 

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Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry shares a laugh with members of the House and Senate before taking the podium on opening day of a legislative special session focusing on crime, Monday, February 19, 2024, in the House Chamber at the Louisiana State Capitol in Ϳʷ¼, La.

Landry criticized those who would question the costs of his proposals.

“While many say focus on the cost, I say focus on the cost to society, I say focus on the cost to our citizens in loss of property, in the disruption of their lives, and in the irreparable tragedy of losing a loved one,” he said.

Landry spoke hours after the release of a report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor which showed that the state’s bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative has saved state government just shy of $153 million since the laws took effect in 2017.

After JRI’s implementation, the state’s prison rolls fell, according to the audit, but the percentage of people imprisoned for violent crimes rose — one of the initiative’s goals.

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Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, speaks at the podium as members of the Legislative Black Caucus and Democrats from the House and Senate hold a press conference on opening day of a legislative special session focusing on crime, Monday, February 19, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Ϳʷ¼, La.

Savings from the JRI flow to the state's Department of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Justice and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement. Starting in 2024, some of that money will also go to the state's Community and Technical College System.

OJJ and DOC use the savings primarily to fund rehabilitative programming inside their facilities, while the LCLE uses them to fund victims' services and some law enforcement training.

After Landry’s speech, several advocacy groups released statements criticizing the governor’s approach and cautioning against turning away from the path set by the 2017 justice system changes. Landry’s proposals attack changes that allowed the state “to shed the unfortunate title of ‘incarceration capital of the world,'” the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based legal advocacy group, said in a statement. “And as incarceration rates fell, so did crime rates, showing that we can make our communities safer while incarcerating fewer people. "

James Finn covers state politics in Ϳʷ¼ for The Advocate | The Times-Picayune. Email him at jfinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter .