Many ideas have been floated to fill Louisiana’s pending $1.6 billion budget gap. One suggestion, unraised but that should be obvious, is revamping our criminal justice system. The United States leads the world with its incarceration rate while Louisiana has the highest rate in the U.S. We lock up a greater percentage of our own than anywhere else, at sentences more than four times longer than the national average. We’re not any safer for it. There’s a better way that will save money year after year, enhance public safety, and perhaps reduce some of the drastic cuts we face.
The Department of Corrections’ budget has hovered between $600 million and $700 million annually for the last few years. That’s roughly $150 million more than the entire LSU System. That doesn’t include spending on local and parish jails, policing, courts, district attorneys, public defenders and other ancillary costs of a bloated system. We arrest people who could receive a summons or some other means to keep them in their communities. We must look hard at what we’re doing and how we can fix it because time’s running out.
Life without parole has created a population of ailing and elderly prisoners, although studies show that after age 55, there’s essentially no chance of recidivism. Currently 4,755 people serve life sentences in Louisiana, according to the DOC. Just over 2,000 inmates are 50 or older and almost 1,000 are between 55 and 64.
Locking up harmless elderly people isn’t cheap. It costs roughly $19,888 dollars annually to house a prisoner, but an ailing elderly prisoner can cost taxpayers up to $80,000. We might save $20 million to $80 million a year by allowing non-violent offenders to go home. That money could be reinvested in our communities.
Louisiana recently enhanced parole opportunities for some inmates over 60. We can do more by allowing all elderly inmates to earn a parole hearing. Those deemed unsafe would remain incarcerated, but those who pose no threat to the public should be able to go home.
The majority of inmates in local and parish jails are nonviolent arrestees awaiting trial. They haven’t been proven guilty. Last year two-thirds of those in America’s jails were awaiting trials, at a cost of about $9 billion to U.S. taxpayers. The New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission reports that in 2014, of the 2,163 inmates in Orleans Parish Prison, a full 80 percent, or 1,679 individuals, were awaiting trial, most on minor and non-violent charges. Many could have been released at no risk to public safety. We’d all be better served by letting those who aren’t dangerous stay home, keep their jobs and support their families while awaiting trial.
While most in parish jails are incarcerated at the expense of parish governments and not the state, tax money saved could be redirected. And those who work and support their families contribute to the overall tax base rather than take from it.
Louisiana allows sentences of up to 20 years for marijuana possession on a third offense. According to a 2014 survey, 61 percent of Louisianians agree this is too long. That survey also shows that 66 percent of Louisiana voters admit to knowing someone who has possessed marijuana.
Thousands of people are incarcerated in Louisiana for marijuana possession because of these unreasonable sentences. Many are simply nonviolent drug users who pose no threat to public safety. In 2010, Louisiana spent $46.5 million on marijuana enforcement, including costs of police, judges and courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and corrections. We can’t afford to lock people up if they’re not dangerous — and the people of Louisiana agree.
As we face a deficit that could cripple our state for years, it’s time to revisit our views on incarceration. We must, of course, keep our communities safe and have penalties for those who don’t follow the rules. But punishment must fit the crime, and we don’t need to warehouse folks who won’t hurt anyone else. That’s bad policy, bad fiscal management and destroys our communities. The time is right for Louisiana to take the lead on reform instead of in our incarceration rate. Our future depends on it.
Marjorie Esman is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.