Our Views: Broad base needed for prison reforms _lowres


Early in life, the late Chuck Colson was a willing tool of the crooked President Richard M. Nixon, and unlike his chief, he spent time behind bars.

In the dark night of the soul, redemption is possible, and Colson’s subsequent career as a prison reformer makes it entirely appropriate that a new federal initiative is named for him.

The report of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections is good reading, with the panel of experts — headed by J.C. Watts Jr., a former Republican leader in Congress — making recommendations that are designed to cut the federal inmate count.

The idea is to protect public safety but not jail nonviolent criminals who should be steered toward probation. The Colson task force is aiming at saving $5 billion in incarceration costs.

“From severe overcrowding to an insufficient array of programs and incentives to encourage behavioral change, the system is failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it,” Watts said.

The panel said if all its recommendations were implemented, the federal inmate count could drop by 60,000 by fiscal year 2024, down from its current 196,000.

Those numbers should be especially instructive in Louisiana, where the state has 38,000 people behind bars. Obviously, that’s a big number compared with the federal jail population, which serves the entire country; among the states, Louisiana in 2014 was first in terms of inmates for its population, federal authorities reported.

We welcome, therefore, the statement of Gov. John Bel Edwards that he will present a comprehensive legislative package for the Legislature’s 2017 session aimed at reducing the state’s prison population.

Maybe that’s not real quick, given that this issue has seen a lot of policy work already. But we suspect that the governor is concerned that this year’s sessions of the Legislature will be obsessed with the major budget crisis left over from his predecessor, Bobby Jindal.

To his credit, Jindal had backed some bills to change Louisiana’s incarceration system but quite often the impetus came from outside groups — from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Pelican Institute for Public Policy. Like the federal Colson panel, prison reform must be a broad-based endeavor politically, because few politicians like to be criticized for failing to be tough on crime.

Prison reforms are not an either-or situation with public safety.

“Having the highest incarceration rate isn’t leading to safer streets and communities,” Edwards said Tuesday, speaking to a New Orleans meeting of the American Correctional Association.

Edwards in the 2015 was enthusiastically backed by Louisiana sheriffs; he is the grandson, son and brother of Tangipahoa sheriffs. Over the past few years, the civic groups battling for prison reform have not always been happy with the sheriffs or others in law enforcement.

Ironically, Colson was one of the fervid anti-Communists who worked for Nixon, who made history by opening diplomatic relations with red China. Perhaps there is something of a “Nixon goes to China” dynamic at work here, with the sheriffs’ candidate working to bridge the gaps in the prison reform debate.

We shall see, but we’re cautiously optimistic that even the most conservative elements of the law enforcement community will see that vast amounts of money spent on corrections might not be the path to safer communities, particularly for those who, like Colson, redeem themselves in society.