Attorney Ben Cohen with the Promise of Justice Initiative poses for a photo in a legal library in New Orleans, La., Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Cohen works to reform Louisiana's criminal justice system.

Criminal justice reform is working in Louisiana. We’ve shed the shameful title of incarceration capital of the world and our prison population is the lowest it has been in 20 years. The state budget is reaping savings beyond initial projections, but our work to create a criminal justice system that is fairer and more efficient has only just begun.

State officials announced this week that Louisiana’s criminal justice system overhaul — generated by the 10 criminal justice reform bills passed in 2017 — saved the state $12.2 million. That is twice the amount of the initial projections, which estimated $6.1 million in savings for fiscal year 2018. Those same projections estimated $262 million in savings over the next decade.

With bipartisan support, our state enacted evidence-based, data-driven policies that have worked in other states across the country and the South. Louisiana is the latest example of smart justice at work.

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These reforms have already reduced the state’s prison population and saved millions in tax dollars. Of the $12.2 million saved over the last year, 70 percent — or $8.54 million — will be strategically reinvested into education, re-entry assistance, life skills training, drug treatment, victims’ services and other programs that will ultimately make our communities safer. This effort deserves the same bipartisan support that allowed last year’s reforms to pass.

By providing alternatives to incarceration we will reduce crime, keep people from initially going to prison, and prevent formerly incarcerated people from returning to prison.

These pending improvements are a step in the right direction, but we are still facing a crisis of our own making.

Being the world’s second-largest incarcerator — behind only Oklahoma — is nothing to brag about. Our state continues to lock up far too many people. The severity of our sentencing guidelines and our strict release policies — particularly the application of life without parole — are largely to blame. Louisiana prisons increasingly resemble nursing homes, as people who are statistically unlikely to commit more crimes grow older behind bars and require more expensive medical care.

Despite the ongoing crisis, Louisianans should see a bright spot ahead, especially in light of last year’s criminal justice reforms. Now is the time to pass more smart policies that will allow us to invest additional taxpayer dollars into our communities, instead of wasting more money by imprisoning people who do not pose a threat to society.

Criminal justice reform is working in Louisiana — so far. Let’s build on this foundation to create a safer, fairer and smarter justice system that will benefit all Louisianans.

Lisa Graybill

deputy legal director, Southern Poverty Law Center

New Orleans