Despite bipartisan efforts in 2017 to reduce the state prison population, Louisiana remains the incarceration capital of America with the most prisoners per capita.
Results from a recent poll suggest an overwhelming majority of Louisiana voters support more substantive criminal justice reform, including expanded parole for people serving long sentences and changes to mandatory sentencing laws.
A new nonprofit called the Second Look Alliance solicited the survey to get a better sense of public opinion on the issue.
The group, which recruited the former chief of staff for Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy to be its executive director, is taking a new approach to criminal justice reform advocacy that includes lifting up conservative voices. Their plans are focused on public education emphasizing two key concepts that resonate with Louisiana residents across the political spectrum and among various demographic groups, according to the poll: reducing the state prison budget and allowing the possibility that some prisoners achieve redemption.
When asked how they felt about "reexamining past sentences to provide a second chance to people who have served long sentences and who no longer pose a safety threat to their community," 72 percent of poll participants said they are supportive.
Support was highest among younger adults and liberals. The least supportive group was people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, though 62 percent still favored it.
The poll has a margin of error of 5.4 plus or minus percentage points. SurveyUSA interviewed 1,050 Louisiana adults between Jan. 8 and 12, asking substantive questions of the 718 who identified themselves as voters in the 2020 presidential election.
Preston Robinson, Kennedy's former chief of staff who now leads the Second Look Alliance, said the organization is treating its advocacy work like a political campaign. That means appealing to voters in a grassroots effort to spur legislative action, rather than making the case directly to lawmakers.
Robinson said the polling shows a significant gap between how legislators perceive public opinion and what Louisiana voters actually believe.
"The public is really ready to have these conversations," he said. "Legislators are inhibited by fears of what might happen — political fears. We need to change that. Inaction should be their biggest fear."
As part of the questioning, poll participants were told that about a third of Louisiana prisoners will not be parole eligible for at least 50 years — compared to less than 15 percent in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi — and then asked whether they think Louisiana keeps people in prison the right amount of time. About 55 percent of respondents said they believe Louisiana prison sentences are too long, while 22 percent said they are appropriate and 8 percent said other states should have longer sentences. The rest were not sure.
"This polling affirms what we know to be true, that Louisianans believe in redemption. For too long, we have allowed a convenient but false narrative to dominate our understanding of where the public stands on criminal justice," said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans organization that has long advocated for sentencing reform.
When asked about what they believe is the purpose of putting people in prison, 68 percent of respondents said "to remove a continuing threat off the street" and 26 percent said "for punishment."
Louisiana has more prisoners serving life without parole than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee combined, according to 2020 corrections data — about 14 percent of the state prison population, the highest rate in the country.
When a series of bipartisan criminal justice reforms became law in 2017, state lawmakers achieved their goal of reducing the prison population…
State lawmakers have long acknowledged the problem, with bipartisan consensus on issues of budget and finance, though opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement groups has often halted prior attempts at widespread reform. The 2017 changes softened sentences and expanded parole eligibility for people convicted of minor nonviolent offenses, but stopped short of making lifers eligible for supervised release.
During a budget hearing last year, Louisiana lawmakers questioned why the state prison system is facing constant shortfalls even after a package of criminal justice reforms passed in 2017 that sought to reduce the inmate population and save money.
"It just looks like we can never get our head above water," Republican Sen. Bodi White remarked at the February 2020 meeting.
Many places make most lifers eligible for parole after 20 or 30 years, but "life means life" in Louisiana, where the Legislature voted in 1979 to eliminate parole for all lifers.
Lawmakers were responding to an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished the death penalty nationwide — an effort to keep former death row inmates behind bars. The death penalty was later reinstated, but the prohibition on parole remains.
About 55 percent of survey respondents said prisoners should be eligible to receive consideration for parole after having served at least 20 years, reached age 50 and completed a rehabilitation program.
Hayward Jones stands before his students and writes two words on the chalkboard: self development.
When asked which issues shaped their opinions on sentencing review, respondents cited concerns about incarceration costs above all, followed closely with a belief that people are capable of redemption. About 85 percent of participants also said that money saved through reducing the prison population could be used to fund rehabilitation and reentry programs to help formerly incarcerated people become more productive members of society.
Louisiana allocated over $700 million for adult and youth corrections services last year. The average Louisiana resident spends about $130 on state prisons annually, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
After state lawmakers passed historic criminal justice reforms in 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards was quick to celebrate another achievement that …