Can This Southern Spitfire Fix America's Prisons?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Louisiana has America’s highest incarceration rate — and she’s on a mission.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The grand legislative chambers in Baton Rouge are filled with frumpish politicians, old-school ties and musty cologne. Then there’s Julie Emerson, the youngest politician in the crowd and the life of the party. As we stroll through the ornate halls of the Louisiana State Capitol Building, the 29-year-old high-fives her colleagues, snickers through committee hearings and hands out her private cell number to strangers. But don’t dare call her a Southern belle, or “Lord, help us all,” she says.
As the youngest member of the Louisiana Legislature, this plucky political powerhouse has been in office for just 17 months. But already, she’s helping the state charge forth on an issue that’s unusual terrain for conservatives — solving America’s prison problem. As the driving force behind a slew of criminal justice reforms offering second chances to nonviolent offenders, Emerson won the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Achievement Award in her first year in office. Today, over cayenne-peppered boudin sandwiches, she rambles on about her state’s landmark “Ban the Box” legislation, which prohibits employers from requesting criminal history before an applicant has reached the interview process or received a job offer.
And the state’s got more proposals on the docket: granting early parole to elderly prisoners, reducing penalties for low-level offenders, and creating alternatives to prison and probation. A true Southern spitfire, Emerson is one of the Republican Party’s “young guns” and “real stars on the rise” advancing the criminal justice reform movement, says David Safavian, deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Make no mistake: These are no small feats in Louisiana, dubbed the world’s prison capital for having the highest incarceration rate in America. The state’s incarceration rate is bigger than that of China’s, Russia’s or North Korea’s, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the think tank Prison Policy Initiative. Such efforts, Emerson believes, won’t go unnoticed, especially as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moves toward longer, harsher punishments at the federal level. “If it can happen in Louisiana, it can happen anywhere,” says Emerson, whose beach-blond hair, dimpled smile and raucous humor remind me of Amy Schumer. And if there’s anyone who can get a grip on such an unwieldy problem, it’s her. In 2015, Emerson was one of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee’s “15 in ’15: Races to Watch” as she challenged a Democrat incumbent in her tiny hometown of Carencro, the heart of Cajun country. The election results were scary close: 51 percent to 49 percent.
Reform is a pretty word, but every time you change something, someone is going to be mad.
Emerson’s rise to prominence comes from a winning combo of family-and-faith-based politics and, oddly enough, Louisiana’s chronic budgetary woes. On the one hand, Emerson, who grew up going to church every Sunday and graduated from a Christian high school, views prison reform through a moral lens — fulfilling the Christian duties of forgiveness and redemption. On the other hand, the state — mired in a budget crisis — could potentially save a whopping $305 million in a decade’s time, simply by reducing its prison population by 13 percent, or about 4,800 inmates, according to a draft report from the governor’s office.
Emerson often speaks to committees like she’s delivering a sermon. “I think a lot of my conservative colleagues feel a little bit of heartburn when you start talking about the fiscal issues,” she says. “But we believe in redemption and getting families back together.” It’s a tactic the rest of the South is slowly starting to latch onto: States like Georgia and Louisiana have updated laws, nixed excessive punishments, diminished recidivism and saved billions in recent years, says the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s executive director Timothy Head. He points to Texas, which has experienced a 14 percent plunge in its prison population and a 29 percent decrease in crime in the past decade.
However, Emerson’s criminal reform bills can often come down to a razor-thin margin: For Ban the Box, the vote was 53 to 52. “Reform is a pretty word,” she says, “but every time you change something, someone is going to be mad.” The compassionate conservative plea still fails to sway Republicans who have long embraced a “tough on crime” mantra and increasing criminal penalties as a solution to rising crime rates. But to be “smart on crime” now has taken on a new meaning — a strategy that rests upon improved fiscal policy and cold, hard statistics, says Emerson: “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?” A wedge issue like criminal justice reform, she notes, has the power to push the Grand Old Party past narrow, fiscally conservative mindsets — the kind that insist if taxes are cut, all will be solved — and might actually help unite Republicans and Democrats, faith-based communities and atheist ones, men and women, young and old. “Across the board we’re trying to look at ways to be not just the party of ‘no,’ but be the party of solutions,” she says.
After all, young legislators like Emerson tend to come without the “history and baggage” that drag on old-guard policymakers, she says. In the stuffy legislative chambers of the Bayou State’s Capitol Building, Emerson is clearly a black sheep among the good-old-boy networks and pool-playing caucuses that consume Louisiana’s politics. But in her case, maybe standing out isn’t such a bad thing.
Correction: The original version of this feature misstated the size of the prison population in Louisiana.