If Louisiana rethinks its harsh sentencing and cuts back the prison and jail populations, the state could not only save money but perhaps see less crime, the state’s top official said Friday.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, echoing statements he made during his election campaign, endorsed the idea of making sweeping changes across the criminal justice system with the goal of changing Louisiana’s status as the most incarcerating state in the nation.
“You will never convince me that the people of Louisiana are innately more sinister or criminal than elsewhere. So what are we doing?” Edwards asked Friday at the Capitol at the inaugural meeting of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a coalition of about a dozen people including judges, legislators, a sheriff, a prosecutor, a religious leader and others.
The group is charged with developing data-driven recommendations to reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety, as well as come up with suggestions to revise sentencing rules and invest in programs that lessen recidivism. This is in preparation of next year’s legislative session, when Edwards has said he wants to focus on these issues.
Edwards asserted that a “lock ’em up” culture has failed to bring down crime even as the state’s incarceration rate has shot up 35 percent over the past 20 years — currently at 816 per 100,000 people, double the national average. This costs the state $600 million to $700 million a year.
This push comes at a time when many states, including some in the South, have embraced a movement toward deincarceration and sentencing reform that’s gained support across the political spectrum.
“If we had the highest incarceration rates and the lowest crime rates and the lowest recidivism rates, we could probably argue that it was worthwhile. There is no argument to make for what we’re doing in Louisiana today,” Edwards said, noting that Louisiana has some of the highest rates of violent crime.
The task force, which is headed by Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, has been a year in the making in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan group headquartered in Philadelphia. A team of seven attorneys, criminologists and data analysts from Pew will travel to Louisiana every two weeks from Washington, D.C., where the organization’s Public Safety Performance Project is headquartered.
“One of the primary reasons the stars have aligned for this comprehensive reform effort is because of Secretary LeBlanc’s leadership,” said Edwards, who reappointed the longtime corrections boss this year.
Edwards’ brother Daniel is the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, as was his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. In Louisiana, sheriffs play a large role in the prison system, as they house many state prisoners.
Right now, Louisiana’s sheriffs are worried about the proposed $2 cut in the state’s budget to the $24.39 per diem sheriffs receive for every state inmate they house in their local jails, said Mike Ranatza, director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, an influential lobby that backed Edwards in the gubernatorial election.
Because more than half of state inmates are housed at local sheriffs’ jails, rather than in state prisons, the per diem is a critical part of sheriffs’ budgets, especially in rural parts of the state, where jails are sometimes a major employer and more inmates each night means more job security for deputies and more cheap inmate labor for local businesses.
Edwards and LeBlanc also argued for raising per diem, saying it would not incentivize sheriffs to keep more state inmates but somehow would lower the incarceration rate because more money could go to re-entry programs that would keep offenders from coming back to jail.
Restoring the daily rate to $24.39 is one of the legislative goals of East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, who was sworn in Wednesday as the 71st president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. The position is elected by Louisiana’s 64 sheriffs and lasts for one year, beginning July 1.
“Per diem is a big deal,” Gautreaux said Wednesday. “To lose per diems, it really hurts the smaller sheriffs. ... I think everybody is willing to take their fair share of whatever the cuts may be, but certainly we’re going to fight to try to keep the things afloat that we know we need to have for all of our sheriffs.”
Louisiana’s incarceration rate already has dipped from its peak in 2012, having decreased by 4,206 offenders as of December 2015, according to statistics provided by LeBlanc. The corrections department cites probation and parole, as well as re-entry projects — including educational programs and a partnership with the Office of Motor Vehicles to give released offenders ID cards — as examples of what the state already is doing right.
“If you take a low-level, nonviolent offender and put him or her in prison when you probably shouldn’t, you run a great risk of when they get out of prison, they’re no longer a low-level nonviolent offender because you just had them hang out for a year or two with people who gave them a Ph.D. in criminology,” Edwards said.
Members of the task force include LeBlanc, Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia; state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson; Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany; Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, Family Forum President Gene Mills; Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes; 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Duhe; 19th Judicial District Judge Bonnie Jackson; Foundation for Louisiana leader Flozell Daniels Jr.; and State Public Defender Jay Dixon.
Martiny told Edwards at the meeting that he used to believe in the “lock ’em up and throw away the key mentality,” but he’s worked to undo it over the past decade.
“I have to tell you what you had to say just now is probably the most refreshing thing that I’ve heard in the last 15 years,” Martiny told Edwards.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.