There are few states as rich in culture and history as Louisiana. From scenic landscapes to traditions of culinary and musical excellence to our Carnival celebrations, our state is justifiably sought out by visitors from around the globe.
But there’s one distinguishing fact about Louisiana that should not make any of us proud. With an incarceration rate that is tops in the country and double the national average, Louisiana is the prison capital of the world.
Over the past two decades, our prison population has grown by 35 percent, and our cash-strapped state spends nearly $700 million a year on corrections. Despite that hefty investment, nearly 4 out of every 10 inmates who leave our prisons are back behind bars within three years.
That’s a gloomy picture. But fortunately, Gov. John Bel Edwards, House Speaker Taylor Barras, Senate President John Alario and other state leaders recognize that our criminal justice system needs help. They have assembled a panel of experts from across Louisiana to tackle the problem, and I’m gratified that this blue-ribbon, bipartisan group begins its important work this month.
Known as the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, the 14-member panel boasts a bounty of diverse professional experience. There are legislators, representatives of the courts and executive branch, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others with real-world expertise in the criminal justice field.
The panel’s task is to conduct an exhaustive review of our sentencing and corrections system and figure out what’s working well and what isn’t. Members will study successful policies and practices in other states and take a hard look at what the best scientific research says about how to change criminal behavior and keep the public safe.
Based on its findings, the panel will prepare a package of recommendations for consideration during the 2017 legislative session. The goal? Ensure Louisiana’s criminal justice system holds offenders accountable while delivering the best possible public safety return on our investment.
Fortunately for all of us, the task force is venturing into well-charted territory. More than two dozen states have improved their correctional systems using the same process now unfolding here.
Those states, including Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, wisely built their reforms on indisputable data and proven strategies. And many of them already are seeing positive results.
South Carolina, for example, passed a set of corrections reforms in 2010. Since then, the state has cut its prison population by more than 10 percent, improved probation and parole completion rates and closed several prison facilities. Most importantly, the reforms did not jeopardize the public; violent and property crime rates dropped by 17 and 11 percent between 2010 and 2014, respectively.
Neighboring Texas also has a great story to tell. In 2007, lawmakers there decided against building more prisons and instead invested in drug courts and other alternatives proven to reduce repeat offending. Since then, the recidivism rate in Texas has dropped 25 percent, and crime is down to levels not seen in half a century. Texas taxpayers, meanwhile, have been spared nearly $3 billion in prison costs.
Such examples show that contrary to widespread perceptions, it is possible to reduce imprisonment while also reducing crime. States have demonstrated that by using their most expensive sanction — prison — for their most serious criminals and using proven alternatives for lower-level offenders, they can save money and keep the public safe.
Over the past five years, Louisiana has begun moving down the path of reform, passing a series of evidence-based measures to improve the performance of our correctional system. The state already is reaping the reward. Since 2011, for example, the prison population has declined 8 percent, while crime has dropped 6 percent.
But past efforts to reshape our criminal justice approach have come in a piecemeal fashion and at a frustratingly slow pace. Now is the time to accelerate the reform effort and give the issue the priority it deserves.
Without a holistic approach and a commitment to lasting change, Louisiana will continue spinning its wheels on criminal justice and will retain its dubious status as the world’s most enthusiastic jailer.
Let’s embrace reform and be rid of that sad distinction. The great state of Louisiana deserves no less.
Kevin Kane is the president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and a member of Smart on Crime, a coalition of business and community leaders seeking to reduce Louisiana’s incarceration rate while improving public safety and saving taxpayer dollars. Based in New Orleans, The Pelican Institute promotes free market principles.