A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union portrays Louisiana as one of 10 states actively pursuing prison reform.
The report, made public Tuesday, gives Louisiana high marks for recent legislation that could possibly free some elderly inmates. Beginning next week, certain nonviolent, non-sex crime offenders will become eligible for parole once they reach their 60th birthday.
“Louisiana has the unfortunate distinction of being the state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation … It seems at least some lawmakers in Louisiana understand the need to reduce prison and jail populations and budgets,” the report states.
The ACLU highlighted states making changes and recommended further reforms.
According to the report, Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio are making significant progress in reducing incarceration rates while California, Louisiana, Maryland and Indiana are beginning to embrace change.
Texas is putting people on probation instead of in prison for drug violations. Kansas is emphasizing drug treatment instead of jail time for nonviolent offenders. Mississippi partially repealed a law that requires certain offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before having any hope of freedom.
“The state budget crunch has forced many to finally realize the economic necessity of and reasoning behind reducing this country’s unnecessary over-reliance on prisons … The need for financial austerity has created an unprecedented opening for advocates,” the report states.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said the ACLU worked with her on the legislation that gives some elderly inmates a shot at walking out of prison. “They worked very hard with me on the bill. They really did. They worked to promote the bill,” she said.
Smith said her next focus will be critically ill inmates who cause a drain on state government dollars because they are ineligible for federal health-care funding as long as they remain within the prison compound.
They could possibly be moved into secure nursing homes instead, Smith said. “They’re just about on their deathbed,” she said.
The ACLU recommended that states pursue:
• Forming oversight commissions. Louisiana recently activated its sentencing commission to look at the state’s criminal justice laws.
• Reducing reliance on pre-trial detention.
• Reducing the penalties for drug offenses.
• Eliminating minimum sentences.
• Eliminating habitual offender laws that deliver lengthy prison sentences to offenders who rack up convictions.
State Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie and a member of the sentencing commission, said the ACLU is ignoring the core problem of why people are in prison. “You can’t look at the incarceration rate of Louisiana and say we’re locking up too many people. We also have a higher offender rate … We have a lot more people committing crimes,” he said.
Lopinto said the state does need to address who truly belongs in prison.
“We want to decrease the population, but we want to decrease the population smartly,” Lopinto said. “Some of it, yes, is cost. That’s not an overall deal.
“Why would you want a person sitting in jail that can be a productive member of society and probably would not re-offend?”
Lopinto said judges should be able to decide whether a defendant should remain in jail before trial.
Eliminating minimum sentences, he said, is a thorny issue although some changes are possible on certain offenses. He said the habitual offender law needs to remain in place.
“The habitual offender law is an important tool for district attorneys. Can it be abused? Yes. But on the other hand, we can’t just allow someone to continue to do petty offense after petty offense,” he said.
Lopinto said the “infirmed” inmates that Smith plans to focus on are those serving life sentences for murder or rape. Those serving lesser sentences can be freed through medical parole, he said.
“It’s murderers and rapists,” Lopinto said. “And don’t get me wrong, none of them are threats anymore. They’re vegetables … But they still offended someone.”
Lopinto said there is the possibility of putting the inmates in state nursing homes as they near the end of their lives to ease the financial burden on the state. Once outside the prison gates, the state can turn to the federal government for help in caring for the inmates.
He said the issue is something that can be tackled but predicted it will not be a shoo-in.