Guest column from New Orleans asst. DA: How we can achieve true prison reform, reduce criminal relapses _lowres

Christopher S. Bowman is an assistant district attorney in New Orleans.

Louisiana incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other state. While many — myself included — believe that Louisiana incarcerates too many people, there exists little agreement on why and how to reverse this trend.

A very vocal group argues that incarceration begets more incarceration. In the context of prison reform, I call these individuals Inverse Field of Dreamers (“IFODs”) because their motto is, “if you do not build it, then no crime will be committed.”

This line of thought leads to the inexorable conclusion that if all prisons are torn down, then all crime will magically cease. If the IFODs wish to disavow such logic, then they must be more precise about who should and should not be incarcerated. Should we incarcerate felons who illegally possess firearms? What about dope dealers or those who purchase dope on public streets?

None of the IFODs want to say what crimes should be legalized other than the possession of marijuana. The legalization of pot, however, would at best have a negligible effect on the state’s prison population. To avoid these questions, some policymakers are simply increasing “good time” credit so that inmates serve less of their actual sentence.

To incentivize good behavior, laws should allow for a marginal reduction in the length of one’s sentence to reward good conduct while in custody — “good time.” While “good time” laws work as a means of regulating the conduct of prisoners, they fail as a means of implementing inmate reduction policies.

In Louisiana, the laws that regulate the calculation of a prisoner’s good time are notoriously complex. As such, their alteration is not accompanied by a meaningful debate and frequently goes unnoticed by the public and the media. Therefore, when a crime victim sees a defendant receive a lengthy prison sentence only to learn that he was released after serving a small fraction of it, such victims are outraged and lose faith in the system.

In a recent case, a defendant who was responsible for the death of one victim and the serious injury of another was released after serving approximately 20 percent of his five-year sentence. The DA’s Office convicted this defendant of the most serious crime available, and the judge imposed the maximum sentence allowable.

Using early “good time” releases is a disingenuous way for elected officials to simultaneously beat their chest and proclaim “tough on crime” policies to one constituency while turning to another and claiming that they support anti-incarceration reform policies. You cannot have it both ways!

Louisiana incarcerates too many people because of the deplorable job it does in preventing the cycle of recidivism. A reform policy that halts the incarceration of nonviolent felony narcotics offenders will not prevent this.

In New Orleans, a first-time offender who is convicted of the simple possession of narcotics receives a suspended sentence. Barring extraordinary circumstances, a second offender receives the same treatment.

Before such an offender is looking at an actual prison sentence, he has already fallen into the cycle of recidivism. According to a 2012 study, 50 percent of the inmates released from Louisiana prisons in 2007 were back in prison five years later.

There are three things that exponentially decrease the likelihood that an offender will recidivate. Offenders who obtain a diploma or GED certificate, obtain a job skill and maintain gainful employment are far more likely to break out of this dreaded cycle.

Louisiana is remiss in failing to ensure that offenders on probation achieve these attainable goals. Louisiana’s inability to educate and train its incarcerated inmates — where it literally has a captive audience — is inexcusable.

The DA’s Office in New Orleans built a diversion program that ensures its clients attain these three goals. Not surprisingly, the recidivism rate of graduates is less than 10 percent. If reformers want to reduce the prison population without threatening public safety, then they should embrace this program.

Those who see reform as simply throwing open the prison doors fail the very people whose cause they claim to champion and do so at the cost of public safety.

Christopher S. Bowman is an assistant district attorney in New Orleans.