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Analysis: Louisiana’s attempting criminal justice overhaul


March 10, 2017
By The Associated Press
Originally Posted on New Orleans City Business

Louisiana’s top-in-the-nation incarceration rate is a drain on the state’s workforce and its treasury, and the lock-up numbers are getting a new look from elected officials who are wondering if their sentencing laws and public safety policies have been too harsh.

In addition to tackling the weighty task of tax overhaul, Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers also will be trying to rework Louisiana’s criminal justice laws in the upcoming legislative session.

A roadmap of recommendations will be released this week by a task force studying the issues since June, with the aim of putting fewer people behind bars and providing those who get out more drug treatment and educational training to prepare them for life after prison.

It’s a tricky subject in this “tough on crime” state, but the political forces may be aligning just right to make it happen, with a governor focused on the effort and a bipartisan coalition of groups backing it.

“The people in Louisiana are not innately more sinister, more evil or more criminal than people elsewhere,” Edwards said. “Why do we have the highest incarceration rate in the nation?”

The state had 776 people in prison for every 100,000 residents in 2015, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The national rate was 458 prisoners per 100,000.

Locking up so many people comes with a hefty price tag. The Department of Corrections’ budget is more than $500 million a year. Another nearly $150 million is spent on housing prisoners in parish jails overseen by local sheriffs.

As Louisiana struggles through repeated budget gaps, some lawmakers see the corrections budget as a target for savings. That drive for cost-cutting, particularly from Republicans, combined with long-expressed worries from some Democrats that Louisiana’s sentencing laws are too tough have helped move the idea of overhaul to the forefront.

Bolstering the effort further, new and powerful lobbying faces have entered the debate.

The influential and conservative Louisiana Family Forum is behind the effort. So is the business community, through the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, where organization President Stephen Waguespack said business leaders want to improve skills training and drug treatment for those in prison, to keep them from reoffending.

The nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts said nearly four in 10 Louisiana inmates released from prison return within three years.

“The primary focus for us is the re-entry side, the training that goes on, how we can make sure that that’s relevant, how we can expand the job opportunities for those guys coming out,” Waguespack said.

The broad coalition of involved groups is encouraging Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who has pushed for years for the state to rethink its approach. LeBlanc is chairman of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, the 14-member study group that will release its recommendations Thursday.

“In my 40-plus years in corrections, I’ve never seen such bipartisan public support and call for reform. The tide is changing,” LeBlanc said at a task force meeting. “Leaders and lawmakers are realizing that our state’s current response to crime, especially nonviolent crime, has broken families apart and taken parents away from their children, creating a revolving door of crime.”

But, as the saying goes, the devil’s in the details.

Drug courts, skills training, mental health programs and addiction treatment cost money, a difficult task in a state with repeated budget gaps.

Additionally, people have different ideas about reform. While there’s broad consensus on lessening sentences for nonviolent offenders, there’s significant disparity in ideas of how to deal with people convicted of violent crimes.

That’s where Louisiana’s district attorneys have raised objections, concerned that changing sentencing laws for violent crimes would threaten public safety.

“We’re drawing a line at violent crime,” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

Adams said district attorneys support working on areas where nonviolent inmates can be safely released, to ensure “we’re not over-incarcerating folks who don’t need to be in prison.” But he warned about overreaching.

“I think if this package goes too far, it’s going get too complicated and nothing’s going to pass,” he said. “And that would be a tragedy.”