Children of Incarceration

Inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, participate in a class called Malachi Dads, Tuesday, October 25, 2016, a prison parenting class to help men become positive influences in their children's lives while they are incarcerated and after they're released. (Photo by Ted Jackson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) ORG XMIT: NOLA2015061614435814

The number of people serving life sentences in Louisiana is almost three times larger than the entire state prison population was in 1970. 

Advocates argue those numbers illustrate the consequences of "tough on crime" policies from decades past. Prison populations have ballooned nationwide as lawmakers increased penalties across the board, from drug and property crimes to gun violence. 

Louisiana is one of 24 states where the number of lifers today exceeds the total number of inmates four decades ago, according to a report released this week from the national nonprofit The Sentencing Project as part of its campaign for sentencing reform nationwide. The populations are roughly the same in another nine states. 

"As states come to terms with the consequences of 40 years of prison expansion, sentencing reform efforts across the country have focused on reducing stays in prison or jail for those convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes," the report states. "At the same time, policymakers have largely neglected to address the staggering number of people serving life sentences." 

The consequences are exacerbated in Louisiana, where people sentenced to life have no chance at parole, said Ashley Nellis, senior researcher with The Sentencing Project. That means more years spent behind bars and higher health care costs for geriatric prisoners under the state's care.

Almost 5,000 inmates — an estimated 15% of the total state prison population — are serving life without parole in Louisiana, which imposes such sentences at the highest rate in the nation.

That hasn't always been the case, however. For much of Louisiana's history, people sentenced to life were released after about a decade behind bars, until the 1970s when the legislature abolished parole for all lifers.

Some elected officials have pledged their support of changing Louisiana's sentencing laws and reintroducing parole eligibility for the state's most violent inmates, citing research that shows people largely age out of crime. But such efforts haven't made it off the ground in recent years.

When legislators passed a sweeping criminal justice reform package in 2017, they softened sentences and changed parole requirements for minor and nonviolent crimes. But they stopped short of addressing more serious offenses, partly because of opposition from prosecutors and sheriffs, who argued it would jeopardize public safety and break promises to victims and their families. 

The result was to decrease the state's overall prison population while increasing the percentage of people serving life sentences. 

Other states and the federal government have similarly limited recent prison reform efforts to nonviolent offenses. But advocates now argue that truly addressing mass incarceration must include rethinking the American response to violent crime.

Researchers noted in their report that states in the southern and western United States saw the largest changes to their use of life sentences over the past four decades. In Nevada and Utah, the number of people now serving life is more than four times those states' prison populations in 1970, according to the report.

Louisiana came in third with a lifer population that's 268% bigger than the 1970 prison population. The Sentencing Project used 2016 numbers for its calculations because that was the most recent data available. 

Researchers pointed to several specific policies that have contributed to the increases: habitual offender laws, mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, the elimination of parole opportunities and the transfer of juveniles to the adult court system. 

"As states rethink their regimes on punishment so that public safety is paired with fairness, it is clearly important to adopt reforms for those individuals convicted of low-level and nonviolent crimes," researchers said. "But it would also be wise from a moral and fiscal standpoint, as well as the standpoint of public safety, to give a second look to those serving life sentences."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.