Louisiana has been America’s No. 1 jailer for two decades now.
And if we don’t act in the next two weeks, we may hold that title for decades to come.
Americans are naturally competitive, so rankings are often a way we look at issues. But the grim footrace between Louisiana and Oklahoma to see which state tops the list for incarceration is no cause for high-fives all around.
Louisiana has held the title since 1998, when we passed Texas.
But in 2007, Texas became the first state to turn to new statistical strategies aimed at trimming inmate populations, and it has closed three prisons while simultaneously reducing crime.
Louisiana’s prison rolls continued to grow, until the state topped out at roughly 40,000 inmates — nearly one percent of our population — in 2012.
Other Southern states, including Oklahoma, followed Texas’ example, embracing policies and practices which lower prison population and improve public safety.
This week, late in the legislative session, Louisiana lawmakers will have the opportunity to pass key bills in a bipartisan package to make a difference. The final package is a compromise with recalcitrant sheriffs and district attorneys, who raised last-minute objections.
A new assessment by the Pew Charitable Trusts experts suggests that Louisiana might well shed its No. 1 ranking if the compromise package passes.
Among other things, the bills are aimed at making parole a possibility for some long-time offenders who prove themselves worthy — an important change for a state with so many elderly inmates that our penitentiaries sometimes resemble a rest home.
Other legislation would make education and job-training programs more effective to help reduce Louisiana’s disheartening recidivism rate. One third of those released from prison are back behind bars within three years.
Even if the package passes, much work remains. The state’s sentencing policies are a mess, with 626 unique felonies, including 32 theft offenses. When crawfish farmers fretted over thefts from their ponds, for example, their local legislators obliged them with a new law expanding sentences for pilfering crawfish to as much as 10 years. A comprehensive revamp to bring sentences into proportion was postponed as part of the compromise deal, but it will be back on the table next year.
Legislators will go home on June 8, and they still face key votes on the sprawling package of 10 bills.
Three key Senate-passed bills, by state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, await House committee and floor action. The measures have bipartisan support, but the House is more conservative, more contentious and more chaotic.
Time is precious. Louisiana is at the top of too many bad lists. By acting with resolve, lawmakers can get us off the top of this one.