Coming in first is generally something to be proud of. For instance, LSU football winning the BCS National Championship in 2007, or the New Orleans Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV are both memorable examples. But being No. 1 isn’t always something to strive for.
Until recently, Louisiana had been the incarceration capital of the world, locking up more of our own people than any other industrialized nation or any other state. If Louisiana were also ranked at the top of the charts for public safety, then perhaps this would be a proud accomplishment. But that is far from reality. According to U.S. News, we are a long way from being the safest state in the country.
This overreliance on incarceration not only fails to make us safer, it also comes with a staggering cost to the taxpayers. In fiscal year 2017, prior to landmark reforms our Legislature passed last June, Louisiana spent $625 million on our prison system — the state’s third-largest expenditure behind only education and health care.
Recognizing the extreme disparity between skyrocketing incarceration rates and lack of public safety, legislators of both parties decided to change course. Based on the recommendations from the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, instituted by then-Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and comprised of legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials, and victim and community advocates, the state passed comprehensive criminal justice reform in June 2017.
This package of 10 bills, authored by six Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent, sought to implement reforms similar to those in other states. The reforms have been proven to reduce crime and recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, and most importantly, increase public safety. Prior to 2017, Louisiana was incarcerating individuals for nonviolent crimes at nearly three times the rate of some neighboring states, despite those same jurisdictions having nearly identical crime rates.
Some critics have said these criminal justice reforms are too risky, even attempting without too much success to rollback the changes we made. They ignore the fact that other “deep red” states like Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi, are experiencing the benefits of their criminal justice reforms: reduced corrections spending, lower incarceration rates, a drop in recidivism, and less crime. Texas for example, has saved its taxpayers more than $2 billion and significantly decreased its incarceration and recidivism rates. Most importantly, our neighbor to the west has seen crime rates fall to 1960s levels.
The ink on Louisiana’s criminal justice reforms was barely dry before some critics began calling the effort a failure. Indeed, many of the reforms had not even been implemented before some critics began their assault in the press. But their criticisms are nothing more than a cynical attempt to roll back the 2017 legislation, without offering anything new or innovative to really address our long-standing criminal justice problems.
If insanity truly is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result, that’s exactly what those who would roll back our reforms propose: more of the same. Returning to an outdated system that made Louisiana both the top incarcerator and a state with one of the highest crime rates in the nation will surely not yield any different results this time around.
We did the right thing in 2017 by working to make the justice system more effective at combating recidivism. Early indicators are already showing that these reforms having a positive effect on crime. Rather than doubling down on the failed policies of the past, we need to ensure the reforms are fully implemented. Doing so will cut the cost of government, keep more families together, and make Louisiana a better, safer place to live.
Julie Emerson of Carencro is a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, representing Lafayette and St. Landry parishes. David Safavian of Alexandria, Virginia is the general counsel of the American Conservative Union.