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Fight to cut Louisiana’s high mass incarceration rate must continue


June 27, 2018
By Lisa Graybill
Originally Posted on Southern Poverty Law Center

It’s far too early for our elected officials or anyone else who cares about the future of our state to break out the champagne and celebrate Louisiana’s progress in reducing its enormous incarceration rate.

Despite reports that Oklahoma has edged out Louisiana as the country’s number-one incarcerator, Louisiana remains in the midst of an incarceration crisis. This is true for at least three reasons.

First, even after recent reforms, Louisiana is still breaking the bank by locking up people who do not need to be incarcerated. Taxpayers can’t afford to keep wasting millions on the failed policies of mass incarceration. The state will spend almost $730 million on adult corrections this year, not to mention the additional tax dollars spent by parishes and municipalities.

Meanwhile, the governor and responsible members of the Legislature are trying to make up a $500 million budget shortfall. This is not advanced mathematics: Louisiana could make substantial progress in closing the budget gap if it were to spend less on corrections by releasing people from prisons and jails who do not need to be incarcerated. 

Only a year ago, a bipartisan coalition of legislators recognized the link between reducing incarceration and putting Louisiana on sound financial footing. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a historic package of 10 bills – seven sponsored by Republicans – is projected to decrease the state’s prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million over a decade. The Louisiana Family Forum, the Association of Business and Industry, and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association all came out in support of the reforms. Further efforts to responsibly decrease the incarceration rate would help alleviate the budget woes our state faces.

Second, for years, mass incarceration has been shown to play no role in reducing crime. Louisiana’s penal system continues to demonstrate almost no relationship to the actual occurrence or prevention of crime. According to data Louisiana law enforcement agencies submitted to the FBI for 2016, Louisiana’s violent and property crime rates were 566 and 3,298 per 100,000 residents, respectively. Although these rates were comparable to Alabama’s and South Carolina’s, Louisiana’s prison admission rate that year was 1.5 times that of Alabama, and nearly twice that of South Carolina. 

Moreover, Louisiana’s prison system has had a near-zero effect on decreasing crime since 2000, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. Even though Louisiana’s imprisonment rate ballooned by 15 percent, then fell back to where it was around 2000, the Brennan Center’s research indicates that any change in the crime rate was the result of factors other than imprisonment. Further evidence that the system is broken is Louisiana’s high recidivism rate: 44.3 percent of people released in 2011 had returned to prison by 2016.

Mass incarceration is simply not keeping people safe from crime.

Third, Louisiana’s prisons increasingly resemble nursing homes. More than 32 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana are 45 years old or older; 21 percent have already served more than 10 years. Given the research showing that people generally age out of crime after their early 20s, it makes little sense to continue locking up people who have already been incarcerated for a significant amount of time, and who are statistically unlikely to commit another crime upon release.

Part of the problem is that Louisiana is an outlier when it comes to life sentences without the possibility of parole. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas all authorize most lifers to be eligible for parole, but in Louisiana, a life sentence generally means life without parole. Approximately 5,000 people, nearly 15 percent of the state’s prison population, are currently under life sentences. The criminal justice system needs to shift to imposing the right sentence, not a life sentence, in all but the most egregious cases.

The success of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will depend on police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, the Legislature, the governor and concerned Louisianans coming together to make sure that people are charged, adjudicated, and sentenced fairly, and that they have access to housing, social services and employment opportunities when they leave prison. At the end of the day, Louisiana’s incarceration rate surpasses the combined rates of Russia, Iran and China, with nearly one percent of its population behind bars.

If Louisiana were a country, it would be only slightly behind Oklahoma in caging people at the second-highest rate in the world. The politics of mass incarceration have failed taxpayers, victims of crime and incarcerated people. Now is not the time to go on autopilot. We have to keep working together to build a criminal justice system that preserves fiscal prudence, deters crime, and promotes justice. 

At the SPLC, we are committed to continuing the fight for a safer, more effective, and more humane Louisiana.