A thorny reality confronts Louisiana legislators as they begin to consider measures designed to hack away at the nation’s highest incarceration rate, The Advocate reports. The inmates with the biggest impact on the prison population may also be the bloodiest. Though much of the discussion over a raft of criminal justice reforms this spring has focused on those sent to prison for nonviolent crimes — drug or property offenses like burglary — it’s a smaller group of inmates serving extremely long sentences that have an outsized impact on Louisiana’s prison population and the state budget. The average inmate arriving at prison each year will spend less than three years behind bars. The relatively small cadre of long-serving prisoners, most of them convicted of violent and serious crimes, consumes far more prison resources than any other group.
Advocates for a far-reaching reworking of Louisiana’s sentencing laws and prison system point to those numbers as they argue that an exclusive focus on nonviolent offenders won’t bring about the kind of transformative reduction in the prison population needed to shed Louisiana’s dubious distinction as the world’s most jailed place. “You have this double whammy going on. The more expensive inmates and the number of them have been increasing greatly. That’s really the money issue,” said State Public Defender Jay Dixon. Proposals to cut prison terms or offer a chance at release to violent criminals serving life sentences have attracted the stiffest opposition. District attorneys argue that giving parole eligibility to murderers, rapists and armed robbers poses a threat to public safety and breaks promises to victims. Bo Duhé, district attorney for the three-parish 16th Judicial District, said the vast majority of lifers “forfeited the right to live in a free society” when they committed brutal crimes. The task force that proposed reforms, he said, should have remained focused only on less serious offenses.