As legislators from different political parties, we often disagree on what’s best for Louisiana. But one issue represents a strong exception to that rule: criminal justice reform.
Wherever one sits on the ideological spectrum, we can all agree that Louisiana’s status as the nation’s No. 1 incarceration state is an unfortunate stain on our reputation. Louisianans aren’t any more inclined to commit crimes than people elsewhere, so why do we lock up more folks per capita than any other state?
The answer is that we’re unusually aggressive about using prison to punish those who commit nonviolent offenses, like drug and property crimes. Consider South Carolina and Florida. Although Louisiana’s crime rate resembles crime levels in those states, we imprison nonviolent offenders at twice the rate of South Carolina and nearly three times the rate of Florida.
Louisiana also locks up a disproportionately large number of people for failing on probation or parole, and we house a growing number of inmates serving very long sentences. Roughly 7,000 Louisiana prisoners have spent more than 10 years behind bars, and their numbers are rising fast.
Is all of this making us any safer? Not according to the evidence. In fact, our neighbors are proving that you can safely cut incarceration and crime — and save taxpayers a bundle along the way.
South Carolina, for instance, passed criminal justice reforms in 2010 and has since seen both its imprisonment rate and crime rate fall by 16 percent. The story is even more impressive in North Carolina, a state that updated its approach to corrections in 2011. Since then, North Carolina has cut its incarceration rate by three percent while experiencing a 20 percent drop in crime.
Those states and many others have succeeded because legislators of all political stripes acknowledged that their criminal justice strategy was failing and united behind common-sense solutions. Louisiana is now on the cusp of a similar transformation, but we need support from our colleagues to make it happen.
Ten bills that will help our correctional system produce better results are before the Legislature this spring, and we’re honored to be part of a bipartisan coalition determined to get them passed.
The goal of the legislative package is to get more public safety for every taxpayer dollar, and each bill was carefully crafted from recommendations by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force.
This blue-chip panel spent a year on a meticulous study of our state’s correctional and sentencing trends, and also reviewed research and successful strategies used in other states. The resulting legislation has been debated and negotiated further with District Attorneys, Sheriffs, and other stakeholders to produce a reform package that would cut our prison population by 10 percent over the next decade, save $262 million, and reinvest 70 percent of that savings in programs that support victims and reduce recidivism.
The need for reform could not be more compelling. Louisiana spends nearly $700 million annually on corrections, but one in three inmates released from prison is back behind bars within three years. That’s unacceptable to us, so we joined with seven other lawmakers in the House and Senate on a package that attacks the shortcomings of our system from multiple angles.
One key goal is to focus expensive prison beds on those convicted of more serious crimes while strengthening probation and other prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders.
Other bills would reduce barriers that make it hard for people leaving prison to find jobs and housing and tailor criminal justice fines and fees to a person’s ability to pay.
We’re confident in our reform plan because it has produced results in other states, and we also know we’ve got public support. A public opinion poll in March found that two out of three Louisiana voters favor reducing penalties for lower level drug offenders and want the state to make greater use of more cost-effective ways of preventing crime, like addiction treatment and community supervision.
Change is never easy in government, especially when it comes to crime and punishment. But perpetuating the same losing pattern – and getting the same disappointing results – is not a strategy, it’s a waste of taxpayer money.
The people of Louisiana deserve better. And it’s time for their elected representatives – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – to deliver.
Democrat Walt Leger is speaker pro tempore of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Tanner Magee is a Republican representing District 53 in the House.