Louisiana has taken the risk worth taking to cut prison costs. There is no risk-free or nice way to reduce Louisiana’s prison population. However, there are risk-reduction assessment tools which the legislature and courts should institutionalize use to reduce Louisiana’s prison population. In Louisiana, criminal justice reform has overwhelmingly focused on nonviolent offenders, such as those convicted on drug or property charges. Public opinion favors more effective and less expensive alternatives to incarceration, such as drug addiction and mental health treatment and behavioral courts for nonviolent offenders.
In Louisiana, we should expect judges and lawmakers to use social science data collection projects, research, and measures to devise solutions to reduce prison population based on facts — not perceptions — related to making rational choice decision-making policies affecting violent offenders too. Being tough on crime is easy, being smart on crime is cost-effective. Currently, there is non-evidence based reluctance to categorically reject violent offenders in most aspects of these reformative efforts. The lack of public support is partially due to the public’s fear and lack of knowledge of the topology of violent offenses. The public fears violent offenders so the idea of making them serve their entire sentence seems very appealing. The rhetoric of being tough on crime is powerful as often stated by politicians seeking election who rush to label opponents as weak or soft on crime. The talking point should begin by being smart instead of tough or hard on crime.
Validated risk assessment instruments can bring about criminal justice reform for violent criminals. Risk assessment tools have utilized for sexual offenders, mentally disabled offenders, and domestic abuse offenders. Similarly, the sentences for violent offenders should be adjusted by implementing a risk assessment tool that predicts the likelihood of a future violent offense. The following factors could be considered when trying to predict future violent tendencies: childhood anti-social behavior, adolescent anti-social behavior, age at first incarceration, prior incarcerations, prior convictions for assaultive behavior, history of alcohol abuse, failure to complete high school, criminal associations, interpersonal difficulties, substance abuse, and mental health.
From a financial standpoint, it would make sense to reduce the number of costly inmates. However, the long-term imprisonment of violent offenders has more than a financial effect on the state. There are real costs to the victims, inmates, their families and society at large. Nonviolent offenders are viewed as people who are in need of help and rehabilitation. The same consideration has not been extended to violent offenders. These individuals should be given a risk evidence-based opportunity to rejoin society.
Donald R. Johnson
judge, 19th Judicial District Court