In Louisiana, with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, this week Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population, saving millions annually, the New York Times reports. If legislators approve the changes, Louisiana will be following more than 30 states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, that have already limited sentences, expanded alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, or otherwise reduced the reach and cost of the criminal justice system. Many states say they have saved money while crime rates have dropped. In Washington, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has charted the opposite course, adopting the sort of mass-incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons in the 1980s and 1990s.
Sessions’ approach conflicted with a wide agreement that criminal justice could be more effective by becoming less punitive to low-level offenders, treating root causes of crime like drug addiction, and reserving more resources to go after violent criminals. Advocates say the Sessions moves have had little effect on state efforts. “There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” said Marc Levin of Right on Crime. “There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act.” Legislators in a few places, such as Florida and West Virginia, have gone against the tide, pushing for tougher sentencing related to the epidemic of painkiller addiction haunting many communities. This year, Michigan and Georgia, which previously rewrote criminal justice laws, have approved a new round of changes. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican former prosecutor, has emerged as a leader in the prison reform movement. He has backed several rounds of legislation that reduced punishments for low-risk defendants and slashed juvenile incarceration rolls. Before the changes, Georgia prison rolls were projected to top 60,000 last year but now stand at 52,000, saving at least $264 million.