Louisiana locks up its citizens at a rate 13 times higher than China, five times higher than Iran, and far higher than anywhere else in the U.S., reports Slate. Despite jailing people for nonviolent offenses at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, Louisiana’s crime rate is nearly identical to both of those states. Louisiana spends $700 million each year on incarceration, and has a $300 million budget shortfall this year. A bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Task Force created by the legislature has proposed a data-driven approach for fixing the state’s criminal justice system. Gov. John Bel Edwards says the group’s recommendations would reduce the prison population by 13 percent over a decade and save $305 million. Included are broadening alternatives to incarceration, reducing penalties for drug-related crimes, ending life without parole for juveniles and expanding parole eligibility for the state’s oldest prisoners.
The legislature will consider these issues in its annual session that begins next week. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association is opposed. Ascension Parish District Attorney Ricky Babin says, “There is not a single person that we put in prison that doesn’t deserve to be there.” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore backs locking up elementary school children for up to six months for bringing fake guns to school. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro pushed for a sentence of 20 years to life for a man who stole $31 worth of candy. (He later agreed to a two-year term.) District attorneys oppose parole consideration for the longest-serving inmates, asserting that such a move “risks public safety.” Actually, studies find that older inmates, especially those over 50, reoffend after release at a small fraction of the rate of youthful offenders. The vast majority of convictions occur between the ages of 20 and 29. The task force’s recommendations don’t amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. It suggests that only those who have shown “substantial growth” while incarcerated be allowed to re-enter society.