As Louisiana legislators grapple with a $1.6 billion budget deficit this spring, let’s hope they don’t ignore the elephant in our midst: The state’s bloated and costly correctional system.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. That means we lock up a larger percentage of our residents than any other state, often for sentences far longer than the national average.
Prison is unquestionably the place for violent, repeat and other serious offenders, and the expense of keeping them there will always be justified. But Louisiana has cast its incarceration net too far, and the costs are draining money away from other important public needs.
Smart on Crime Louisiana (https://smartoncrimela.com), a coalition of business and community leaders, was created in an effort to address this problem by applying lessons from states that have succeeded in improving their criminal justice systems.
We are therefore encouraged to see an opportunity to take a smart first step toward turning around our beleaguered correctional system. House Concurrent Resolution 82 would create a committee to study how Louisiana can rein in correctional spending while holding offenders accountable and keeping the public safe.
The committee called for by HCR 82 wouldn’t be just another task force destined to produce a report that will grow dusty on a shelf. It would set up a bipartisan lineup of key criminal justice stakeholders from across our state — from prosecutors and defense attorneys to judges, legislators and law enforcement officials.
Aided by technical experts, these stakeholders would collect and analyze a wide swath of Louisiana’s criminal justice data to determine what’s driving costs and keeping recidivism rates stubbornly high. Based on its findings, the committee would then propose to state leaders a comprehensive set of reforms designed to ensure taxpayers get the best public safety return on their dollar.
Numerous states — including our neighbors Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama — have begun their march toward successful prison reform with this essential first step. Their leaders understood that it’s foolish to proceed with reform without a strong, data-based understanding of why their systems were performing poorly.
The results in these states and others have been encouraging so far and underscore why Louisiana, too, should act.
Texas — certainly not known for being soft on crime — got things started in 2007, when legislators there scrapped plans to build more prisons and instead invested in drug courts and other alternatives to reduce reoffending. Since then, the state has seen declines in recidivism and corrections costs, and its overall crime rate is at its lowest level since 1968.
In 2014, Mississippi followed suit when it passed legislation projected to save at least $266 million in prison costs over the coming decade while reducing recidivism and helping more offenders become contributing members of society. Only one year later, the state has already begun to reap rewards. Mississippi’s prison population is down and the Department of Corrections ended the year with a budget surplus for the first time in recent memory.
How did Mississippi get there? It all began with a committee, just like the one proposed for Louisiana.
If we fail to act, Louisiana will trail even further behind other states. In addition to our dubious claim of having the nation’s highest incarceration rate, our imprisonment rate increased 5 percent between 2003 and 2013 — even as the nation as a whole saw a decline during that span.
The costs of this growth are staggering. In 2013, Louisiana poured more than $700 million into corrections — a larger share of its general fund budget than most states. And despite this investment, nearly four in 10 Louisiana offenders return to prison within three years of release.
Crime is down across America, and Louisiana’s out-of-whack imprisonment rate, heavy correctional spending and lack of smarter, research-based alternatives to incarceration are big challenges. In an era marked by deeply partisan politicking, an approach like HCR 82 is a modest but necessary move forward that we all should embrace. Let’s take this small first step for Louisiana. Our taxpayers, our families, and our communities deserve it.
Kevin Kane heads the Pelican Institute, a conservative group based in New Orleans that studies state issues.