Louisiana sentences more people to die in prison than Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee combined. That’s why people across the political spectrum in the Pelican State favor bringing elderly people serving life sentences back home to their families and communities, as both an act of mercy and to curb the exorbitant costs of needless incarceration.
But the idea of bringing Louisiana into line with its Southern neighbors faces opposition from the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association. In Lea Skene’s rigorous article, "Louisiana's life without parole sentencing the nation's highest — and some say that should change," Loren Lampert, executive director of LDAA, is quoted saying that any prospect of statutory reform involves “gambling with the safety of our citizens.” Frankly, it’s hard to think of a safer bet. Skene’s article cites a 2013 LSU study that finds recidivism among former Louisiana lifers who had their sentences commuted is “almost nonexistent.” Likewise, studies of former lifers in Pennsylvania, California and Maryland have all shown a recidivism rate of less than 1%. For comparison, the general recidivism rate in Louisiana is around 35%.
These returning citizens are also making extraordinary contributions to our community. Louisiana Parole Project and First 72+, two nonprofits that help our longest-serving populations reenter the community, are run by former lifers. Ironically, the LDAA stakes its opposition to commutations on the shortage of re-entry programs such as these ones while also conveniently ignoring the reality that a successful reentry plan costs dramatically less than keeping aging and elderly people incarcerated. The Louisiana Parole Project alone has successfully facilitated re-entry plans for more than 90 people (including 70 former lifers), and none have returned to prison.
This moment presents an opportunity for Gov. John Bel Edwards, who presided over the state’s bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, to vigorously use his commutation power. Though it has languished in recent years, Louisiana has a rich tradition of tempering harsh sentencing with the mercy of clemency. For example, Gov. John McKeithen signed a total of 2,342 pardons and commutations, while Edwin Edwards commuted over 1,300 sentences during his first two stints as governor.
The Vital Projects Fund, a foundation where I serve as the Criminal Justice Program Coordinator, is putting our money where the LDAA’s mouth is. If District Attorneys would commit to supporting applicants before Louisiana’s Board of Pardons, we would support local nonprofits to facilitate their reentry. We would also fund experts at Loyola University to track their progress in the community and collect recidivism statistics. This should assuage any concerns the LDAA holds, and encourage the Governor to act in line with Louisiana's long history of vigorous use of the clemency power.
Criminal Justice Program coordinator
Vital Projects Fund