Prison populations increased, but at a very slow pace across the United States last year, and Louisiana’s prisoner population actually decreased a bit as of the end of 2013, officials reported. But don’t worry, we are still No. 1 in corrections. As a percentage of the population in jail, Louisiana leads the nation.
The sad thing is that Louisiana is hardly alone. Many other states have smaller per-capita prison populations than Louisiana’s but are still far ahead of international norms. We’re even ahead of such garden spots of equity and justice as Cuba and the Russian Federation.
In the nation, the federal system is on track to be down by about 5,000 inmates and may be down by as much as 10,000 in the coming fiscal year. Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is among many responsible officials who believe that the large prison populations don’t translate into public safety.
In this era, Holder said earlier this year, “It’s no longer adequate — or appropriate — to rely on outdated models that prize only enforcement, as quantified by numbers of prosecutions, convictions and lengthy sentences, rather than taking a holistic view.” Lest anyone believe that this is a view of a liberal Obama administration, the same issues concern leading conservative thinkers and public officials.
A national conservative movement to address the costs — directly to the taxpayer, and indirectly to society — of long prison terms and a failure to rehabilitate inmates is headed in Louisiana by the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. The Pelican Institute is part of a broader coalition of liberal and conservative groups who share concerns about criminal justice issues. As taxpayers, there ought to be broad concerns about how many people are locked up. It’s costly not only for the guards and three squares for inmates daily but in capital costs: New Orleans faces continuing disputes over the size and operations of jail facilities, and Baton Rouge is now in a debate over the size and cost of a new prison .
Reforming sentencing laws, which would divert more nonviolent offenders out of jail and back to work under supervision, is part of the answer. Nevertheless, there are vested institutional interests in keeping the flow of prisoners into jails, and thus the flow of taxpayer dollars into agencies that house them, public or private.
There is certainly a cost, too, for upgraded technology for adequate probation and parole supervision — and there is a cost for drug treatment or catch-up education for inmates or probationers. The state and local agencies desperately need adequate funding for all those purposes.
That’s particularly important because, for all the dollars poured into incarceration, it is the social costs that really add up if inmates are released with advanced degrees in criminal behavior. Violent criminals ought to be locked up, but even with longer sentences required in recent decades, more than 95 percent of inmates will eventually come out. How will they come out? Prepared for a job and stability in their lives, or as enhanced threats to society?
Next year is an election year in Louisiana, and the voters ought to be asking candidates for governor and for the Legislature where they stand on corrections reforms.