Three years ago, long before the Louisiana Legislature adopted its Justice Reinvestment, or JRI, legislation, I authored a column in which I argued that Louisiana incarcerates too many people. However, I noted that there existed little agreement on how to reverse this trend without threatening public safety.
Ultimately, I warned that any attempt to decrease the state’s Department of Corrections population through more lenient good time release and parole eligibility would damage people’s trust in their criminal justice system. Louisiana is now reaping what it has sown. Recently, there was an uproar when the local media reported that Neilson Rizzuto was projected to be released from DOC custody on July 20.
In a case that received national media attention, Rizzuto crashed his vehicle into a crowd of spectators during the 2017 Endymion parade in New Orleans. Thirty-two individuals were seriously injured, and an NOPD investigation revealed that his blood alcohol content was nearly three times the legal limit. Ultimately, Rizzuto pleaded guilty as charged to 11 felony as well as 14 misdemeanor counts and received a four-year jail sentence. People were outraged to learn that Rizzuto would be released from custody after serving approximately 17 months.
The result, in this case, was not anomalous. Defendants like Rizzuto are released from Louisiana prisons on a daily basis after serving only a fraction of their sentences. Unfortunately, the media only pays attention when it is a gut-wrenching, headline-grabbing case such as the Endymion crash. In New Orleans, where 585 people were shot last year, we have perhaps grown far too immune to violent crime.
How did this happen? For decades, too many of our policymakers (i.e. legislators and governors) have lacked a coherent policy to address Louisiana’s high incarceration rate. Since they do not want to appear soft on crime, they do not want to reduce sentences prescribed by law. However, since the cost of incarceration is placing an extreme burden on our limited resources, they resort to using less transparent ways to reduce the DOC population.
As a result of these “back end” measures (i.e. early release for “good time” and increased parole eligibility), defendants are serving less and less of the actual sentence imposed upon them. Despite my warnings three years ago, JRI legislation of 2017 only exacerbated these problems.
In advocating for that package of legislation, proponents relied on a false narrative regarding Louisiana’s criminal justice system. That false narrative is that the JRI package would have no effect on violent offenders. Respected criminal justice reform advocates have opined that reform packages that only address nonviolent offenders will ultimately be ineffective.
The JRI package passed in 2017 gives automatic parole to nonviolent offenders upon serving 25 percent of their sentence and “good time” release upon serving 35 percent. However, as discussed above, that would not result in a large enough reduction in the state’s prison population. Therefore, JRI also gave relief to violent offenders. JRI made aggravated battery — for example shooting someone — a probatable offense. Furthermore, it makes violent offenders parole eligible after serving 65 percent of their sentence and gives them automatic “good time” release after serving 75 percent.
While there is no doubt that criminal justice reform was needed in Louisiana, policymakers fail their constituents when they sacrifice truth in sentencing to achieve a quick result. Citizens are left with a nasty taste in their mouths when they learn that what they actually got was not what was promised to them. Policymakers fail their constituents when they do not ensure that inmates receive the necessary programming to reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend — programming that has defined the success of criminal justice reform movements in other states.
For more than half a century, this is what causes the pendulum of criminal justice reform to swing wildly from de-incarceration policies back to tough-on-crime policies. So, who do we blame for this? We all bear some responsibility — the policymakers for failing to ensure that an adequate foundation is laid for the programming needed to ensure that these inmates will be able to successfully re-enter society, some politicians for attempting to tell their constituents that they maintain tough-on-crime policies while passing legislation that ensures inmates will serve only a small percentage of their sentence, the reformers for pushing the false narrative that the state can implement successful reform without letting violent offenders out of prison, prosecutors for their failure to strongly advocate for better reform proposals, and we as voters are ultimately to blame if we fail to read the fine print on legislation that will potentially affect our safety and well-being.
Christopher Bowman is an Orleans Parish assistant district attorney.