Louisiana, which has a higher incarceration rate than any state in the country or any nation in the world, could shed 13 percent of its prison population and save taxpayers $150 million in the process over the next 10 years, leaders of a criminal justice task force announced Thursday morning.
But reducing the prison population will require massive structural reforms, some of which are already proving controversial. They include overhauling sentencing, expanding probation and parole eligibility, revising drug penalties and easing financial burdens on convicts.
Criminal justice reform advocates, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, stressed that Louisiana's incarceration rate is not high because the state has more criminals. In fact, crime rates in Louisiana are not out of line with its Southern peers. Instead, policies and laws put in place under the guise of being "tough on crime" have led to longer sentences and fewer opportunities for release. These policies have proven to be expensive for the state without making the public measurably safer.
For example, in recent years, legislators have added 80 new laws limiting parole opportunities for inmates -- 55 of those were for nonviolent offenders, Edwards said in his remarks to the Task Force.
"Our policy decisions have been driven by fear, and not hope balanced with reason," Edwards said. "What we're doing isn't working."
The task force was established in 2015, but part of Edwards' campaign for governor included a promise for prison reform and reducing the prison population by about 5,500 people. The task force's proposal falls just short of that goal, projecting a reduction of 4,800 prison beds by 2027.
The recommendations were officially released early Thursday morning after about a year of meetings held by the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which was directed to come up with ways to reduce the prison population and recidivism in Louisiana. The recommendations are expected to be introduced as a package of criminal justice reform legislation in the regular legislative session that begins in April.
Several members of the task force stressed that the hard part begins with the legislative work -- translating the recommendations into bills and trying to achieve consensus among the legislators. State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said it's likely the recommendations will be grouped into a set of different bills. But members of the task force are hopeful that the vast majority of the bills will be approved.
"This is not a menu from which to choose one or two items; this is a multi-faceted package," said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Corrections and chair of the task force. "The truth is our state needs to be more than just tough on crime, especially in a budget crisis. We need to be smart on crime."
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Louisiana's per-capita prison population, most recently calculated at 816 inmates for every 100,000 residents, is double the national average. Reducing that rate to match that of Oklahoma, the state with the second-highest incarceration rate, could have saved Louisiana $49 million in 2014, the task force found.
Notably, the task force found Louisiana locks up more nonviolent criminals than most states. In 2014, according to the report, Louisiana had similar crime rates to South Carolina and Florida, but sent nearly twice as many nonviolent offenders to prison as South Carolina did, and nearly three times as many as Florida.
In 2015, 81 percent of people admitted to Louisiana prisons were nonviolent offenders.
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The task force also found that sentence lengths were getting longer for nonviolent offenders between 2010 and 2015, and that the Parole Board reviewed roughly half as many cases in 2015 as it did 10 years earlier.
The recommendations from the task force centered on reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and providing alternative treatment programs and increased opportunities for probation for people accused of drug and property crimes.
A centerpiece of the package calls for a new classification system for felonies that would create a tiered system for crimes, ranging from "A" to "F." There would be clearly delineated sentencing ranges, hard labor requirements, eligibility for prison alternatives and jury types for each class. Such a system would help create consistency and equity in sentencing, the group found.
Leger noted that oftentimes legislators will propose amending criminal laws based on an individual situation in their district, offering up arbitrary penalties. As a result penalties for crimes are "haphazard and unwieldy," the report said. For example stealing a cell phone is a misdemeanor with a maximum of a 6 month sentence, but possession of a stolen cell phone is a felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The task force also sought to ease financial burdens on inmates who will eventually be released. It recommended eliminating the restriction on food stamps for people with drug convictions during their first year following release from prison; suspending child-support payments during incarceration; and expanding transitional work programs, which allow inmates to earn wages, develop job skills and build up savings.
The task force is offering a total of 26 recommendations. The members of the task force unanimously supported 21 of the recommendations. The other five have seen strenuous objections from the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association and some victim advocates.
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The recommendations that garnered opposition would allow people serving life sentences or lengthy sentences for violent crimes to be considered for parole.
"The commitment made to victims is imperative to us," said District Attorney Bo Duhe, the sole prosecutor on the task force.
Pete Adams, executive director of Louisiana District Attorneys' Association, said the association has wide-ranging concerns about the unintended consequences of reducing penalties for people convicted of violent crimes. But he is hopeful that some of those concerns will be allayed when the recommendations are written into legislation.
The overall impact of implementing the recommendations would save Louisiana $305 million over 10 years, according to estimates provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which advised the task force. The task force recommends that at least half of the savings -- $154 million -- be reinvested into research-based programs targeting recidivism and services for victims.
Some of this money would flow back to local prisons in the form of higher per-diem rates to house state prisoners. Half of the state's prison population is housed in local jails, but per-diem rates are so low that the sheriffs are unable to provide programs to reduce recidivism.
"We'll be able to increase sheriff per diems in exchange for better services," Edwards said.
But Adams said he's concerned that it could take years to generate the savings needed to reinvest in education and other enrichment.
"What do we do for the one to three years it takes to generate a savings? Are we letting people out without being able to provide those corresponding treatments?" he said.