One of the most difficult situations for a child to cope with is the incarceration of a parent. Through no fault of their own, these youngsters are denied the care, guidance and affection of their parent.
Tragically, American children experience this fate more frequently than those in any other developed country. And children in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate of any state in our union, suffer most of all.
We certainly need prisons for violent and serious criminals who threaten the rest of us. But research shows that thousands of lower-level offenders can be safely and effectively punished in their own communities — at a lower cost, both in human and economic terms, and without breaking up the families. We are overusing prison and the toll on Louisiana’s families is significant.
More than two dozen states have recognized this negative impact on families and changed their policies so that prison space is reserved for dangerous offenders. They have strengthened community based punishments for those who can safely be held accountable at home. These states are breaking old habits and reshaping their criminal justice systems to make them work better for taxpayers, offenders and their families.
Leaders from both parties in Louisiana acknowledge the impact of incarceration on families, and they are taking steps to enact reforms similar to the other states. To advance this effort, House Resolution 82 was recently enacted, establishing the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force. Beginning early next year, the bipartisan task force will take a top-to-bottom look at Louisiana’s criminal justice system and determine how to help the state control costs and improve public safety.
Modeled after panels that produced successful reforms in many other states, the task force will feature a broad spectrum of criminal justice professionals, from prosecutors and defense attorneys to judges, legislators, law enforcement officials, and community service providers. Their recommendations, which will be presented to the governor and Legislature for action, will be based on data as well as research illustrating effective initiatives underway in other states.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of such research. Numerous states that once faced problems similar to Louisiana’s have passed reforms to help them reduce correctional spending, protect public safety and ensure more offenders get the tools they need to reintegrate into the community and turn away from a life of crime.
Texas was an early pioneer. In 2007, the state decided against building more prisons and instead invested in drug courts and other alternatives proven to reduce re-offending. Since then, the recidivism rate in Texas has dropped 25 percent, crime is down to levels not seen since 1968, and taxpayers have been spared nearly $3 billion in prison costs.
Success stories also are unfolding in many other states, including Georgia and Mississippi. And now, thankfully, Louisiana is poised to join in.
Facts tell us there is much to gain from charting a new course — and little to lose. From 2002 to 2012, 23 states reduced their imprisonment rate and their crime rate. During the same decade, Louisiana’s prison population went the other direction, growing by nearly 12 percent.
Taxpayers paid heavily for this growth, with $709 million dedicated to corrections in 2012 alone. Despite that huge price tag, nearly four in 10 Louisiana offenders return to prison within three years of release. We aren’t getting the public safety that that large amount of spending should get us.
But money and low recidivism rates aren’t the only reasons to press for reform of our system. Our policies should strengthen families rather than split them apart. Family preservation — and the welfare of society’s children — are important reasons to pursue criminal justice reforms. Our nation — and our great state — can and should do better.
Pat Nolan is director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. Kevin Kane is the president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a Louisiana-based conservative think tank.