Jail Wire

File photo

After state lawmakers passed historic criminal justice reforms in 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards was quick to celebrate another achievement that came months later when Louisiana shed the undesirable designation as America's prison capital, ceding that title to Oklahoma for the first time in decades. 

"I made a promise that, by the end of my first term, Louisiana would not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation," Edwards said in summer 2018. "We have fulfilled that promise to Louisiana."

Now starting his second term, Edwards faces the same hurdle thanks to similar changes in Oklahoma, where leaders granted release to almost 500 state prison inmates in October — one of the largest prisoner releases in American history. That came after residents approved a 2016 plan downgrading many felonies to misdemeanors, and the state legislature later made the revamp retroactive. 

Those changes appear to have solidified Oklahoma's second-place spot with an incarceration rate of 653 people per 100,000 state residents, compared to Louisiana's 683, according to figures released earlier this month from the states' corrections departments and census population estimates. Both states remain firmly above all others in prisoners per capita.

12xx19 Louisiana Oklahoma incarceration rates

"This is an ever changing number and process," said Edwards' spokesperson Christina Stephens. "We have absolutely been aware of what's happening in Oklahoma and the governor has always been very realistic about the numbers — and that they could fluctuate — but what cannot be lost or discounted is the fact that the historic and bipartisan reforms he signed into law in 2017 are working."

According to 2017 figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most recent ones available, Mississippi was in third place with an incarceration rate of 619. The national average was 440. Louisiana's incarceration rate has been steadily decreasing since it peaked at 882 in 2012. 

But experts nonetheless contend that Louisiana lawmakers should take additional action if they're committed to once again moving into second place. 

"This is a sign Louisiana shouldn't be resting on its laurels," said Wanda Bertram with the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts nonprofit that has published research on the topic. She also noted that incarceration rates across the United States are consistently higher than in all other democratic countries around the world, arguing that  all states should be seriously pursuing reducing prison populations and strengthening rehabilitation programs.

It appears a "healthy competition" is developing between Louisiana and Oklahoma as the two pursue more-effective criminal justice policies, distancing themselves from the "tough on crime" approach of past decades, said Jake Horowitz, a project director with Pew Charitable Trusts who has studied incarceration rates.

He said the difference between first and second place isn't that meaningful from a numbers standpoint, but has proven useful in motivating state lawmakers to address the problem.

"The bigger picture here is that both states are headed in the right direction," Horowitz said. "They're creating a nice positive feedback loop based on this idea that system improvement is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done approach."

Gov. Edwards has also said he's confident the state's revamp demonstrates that Louisiana is "doing the right thing and headed in the right direction." He added that the "full magnitude of our reinvestment has yet to be seen" as savings from the smaller prison population are being funneled into programs aimed at reducing recidivism and supporting crime victims, among other things. 

Oklahoma's recent release of prisoners came after the state's pardon and parole board approved commuting the sentences of all inmates whose crimes would become misdemeanors under the new law — about 2 percent of the state prison population.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Previous changes had fallen short in Oklahoma, causing its prison population to continue on an upward trajectory even as Louisiana's started to fall. Louisiana's 2017 criminal reform package included softening sentences and increasing parole opportunities for people convicted of minor and nonviolent offenses.

Marc Mauer, director of the national nonprofit The Sentencing Project, said it will be interesting to see how Louisiana legislators react next legislative session, now that the state is back on top. He noted that Edwards' reelection bodes well for a reform agenda "if the state wants to go further" in that direction.

The changes both here and in Oklahoma have also raised questions about how best to calculate incarceration rates.

A 2016 report from the Prison Policy Initiative took a more comprehensive approach than traditional assessments, accounting for people being held pretrial, federal inmates, juveniles and those on immigration holds — groups that aren't included in the more commonly cited calculations released annually from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That report showed Oklahoma on top and generated significant media coverage, which advocates believe pushed residents and legislators to start advocating for change. Another similar assessment hasn't been completed since then.

Mauer said the next step for Louisiana lawmakers is addressing the state's long sentences for violent crimes — including the state's reliance on mandatory life without parole — which have an outsized effect on the prison population. 

"Nationally, we know that about half the people in state prisons are serving time for a violent offense," he said. "At what point does that become unproductive? That's a significant question."

Numerous national studies have confirmed that most people "age out" of crime, that their risk of recidivism decreases significantly with age and time served. Such research supports policies that allow parole eligibility for aging inmates, even those convicted of murder and other horrific crimes. 

Leaders of the state Department of Corrections have also become vocal critics of Louisiana's most extreme sentencing practices, which often leave the state responsible for the medical treatment and burgeoning healthcare costs of elderly inmates. 

But the state's law enforcement leaders and prosecutors have long expressed opposition to moderating sentences for violent offenders, arguing that releasing such inmates would jeopardize the public and break promises to victims and their families. That opposition had a big impact on the 2017 package, which was ultimately limited to addressing minor and nonviolent crimes. 

The final package reduced the state's prison population, but in doing so raised the percentage of people serving life without parole — which was already the nation's highest. Almost 15 percent of Louisiana inmates have no chance at release under the current laws barring a pardon or commutation of sentence, both exceedingly rare occurrences. 

Experts argue that has to change if the state is committed to losing its top jailer designation once and for all.

"Life without parole in Louisiana is having a very strong upward push on the prison population," Mauer said. "That makes it inherently difficult to achieve any substantial reductions." 

Edwards didn't directly respond to questions about some of the state's harsh sentencing laws, but he said criminal justice reform remains a priority for his administration.

"We are making strides (but) still there is much more work to be done," he said in a statement. "This is a big task, and we are continuing discussions with those same stakeholders on developing next steps to keep moving forward in ways that are best for our people, our communities and our state."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.