Jails exist for a reason, and we want as many dangerous criminals there as law enforcement and catch and convict. But the high costs of jailing inmates, often guilty of nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, is a legitimate place to look for savings for taxpayers.
Louisiana's legislative auditor's office, headed by Daryl Purpera, recently suggested that millions can be saved with a more progressive approach to sentencing, probation and parole.
Small wonder, given that Louisiana is the nation's leader in prisons: 816 of every 100,000 residents are locked up. And, the auditor reported, 58 percent of those locked up had no convictions for violent crimes in their past.
The remedies for this situation require a long-term approach, because there is a complicated interaction of police, courts and corrections requiring changes in both laws and institutions.
The auditor's report rightly pointed to reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and providing more rehabilitation services to inmates. Pre-trial diversion programs and more drug courts might well steer nonviolent criminals away from jail.
The report estimates that using drug courts as an alternative to prison could save nearly $70 million over two years. As the auditor also noted, more data is needed on other types of specialty courts, such as those for people with drunken driving records, people with mental illness or veterans with various needs.
Can we make changes and still make Louisiana neighborhoods safer? Making the case for alternatives to prison, the audit report cited corrections data for a class of nonviolent drug offenders convicted from 2009 to 2015. Sentencing them to two years of probation instead of incarceration for the median sentence would save the state between $101 million and $232 million, depending on whether they were locked up at state or local facilities, the report said.
We believe there are savings to be achieved, but we caution that none of us should be expecting a quick tax refund: These are long-term savings, because in the near term Louisiana's state prisons and local jails should be emphasizing education, job training and abuse treatment.
All those cost money, but the idea is that if somebody gets out of jail and can hold a steady job, the parolee is far less likely to once again become an offender and thus an inmate.
In today's prisons, all too often, a young offender graduates as a more polished criminal.
"For low-level nonviolent crimes, it can do more harm than good and leave taxpayers footing the bill," comments Kevin Kane of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative voice on criminal justice reform.
The auditor's report is another in the arguments for a comprehensive and bipartisan approach to changes in justice and jails.