Louisianans for Prison Alternatives rallied Thursday on the steps of the State Capitol before heading inside to lobby legislators on the package of bills that would dramatically change how Louisiana prosecutes and punishes criminal defendants.

Syrita Steib-Martin, of New Orleans, instructed the crowd of about 200 people from across the state not to be afraid to tell their personal stories.

“Don’t just tell them to vote for it,” said Steib-Martin, of Operation Restoration in New Orleans. The group included recently released inmates, families whose loved ones are still prison and victims of crimes who live in neighborhoods that they say are more dangerous now than they were before Louisiana embraced the tough-on-crime policies that led the state to incarcerate more of its citizens, per capita, than anywhere else in America.

“Tell them how the criminal justice system affects you, personally,” Steib-Martin said. “That’s what’s going to make the difference.”

“It only happens when you show up,” said Flozell Daniels, president of Foundation for Louisiana and a member of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force.

Legislators next week are expected to take up the bulk of the 10-bill package drafted from recommendations by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force.

The bipartisan effort includes measures that would lower criminal sentences, focus more on diversion rather than prison, and improve rehabilitation programs for convicts. The legislative package would reduce the state’s prison population by an estimated 13 percent over the next decade and that would save about $300 million.

Conservative groups, including Louisiana Family Forum and Right on Crime, community activists, like Daniel’s group, and many churches are supporting Gov. John Bel Edwards’s legislative package on the issue.

But the state’s district attorneys and the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association have concerns about the proposals.

“The system doesn’t work,” said Norris Henderson, the executive director of Voice of the Experienced Offender, also known as VOTE, a New Orleans-based grassroots organization.

“We continue to make laws based on the way we feel on the worst day of our lives,” Henderson said.

As a 19-year-old, he was convicted in 1977 of the second degree murder of Betty Jean Joseph and sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola on a sentence of life imprisonment without benefit of parole, probation or suspension. His sentence was overturned in 2004 after the courts ruled the type of hearsay testimony used to convict him was improper.

He got caught up on all the various wars to combat crime, Henderson said, from President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs in the early 1970s through President Bill Clinton’s efforts to get tough on crime in the mid-1990s. The results were draconian sentences that filled the state’s prisons with convicts who spend years unproductively behind bars at taxpayer expense.

 “And we’re still not safe,” Henderson said. “We have all this collateral damage.”

Joycelian Jones, of New Orleans, attended because her husband, who had never been arrested before, was sent to Angola 22 years ago on charges of second degree murder. The killing was accidental.

“I feel the sentences need to be more appropriate and the prosecutions more fair,” Jones said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.