The United States has distinguished itself from other nations in one very unsettling manner — putting people behind bars. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. This is largely due to overly punitive drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing requirements that have been especially brutal to people of color.
Every aspect of our nation’s draconian criminal sentencing laws is magnified in our state. Louisiana incarcerates its citizens at a rate of 873 per 100,000 people, far above the national average of 716 per 100,000. Even worse, the majority of those incarcerated are serving time for nonviolent drug and property offenses. It is not surprising that Louisiana is often referred to as the “world’s prison capital.” However, there is hope that this disturbing pattern could change.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a compromise bill that represents a significant step in overhauling America’s harsh criminal justice policies. The bill will reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, expand the federal “safety valve” (which allows judges to use their discretion in some cases to sentence select offenders to less time than required by statutory mandatory minimums), and expand re-entry programs and early release, among other measures. As representatives of the state with the most severe incarceration problems, Louisiana’s congressional delegation must take a strong stance in support of this bill.
I spent my career working in our state’s criminal justice system, and I understand first-hand the urgent need for reform. Having worked as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, I have witnessed the harsh sentences and the adverse collateral consequences that can be imposed on individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses and their families.
In the past few years, Louisianans have shown they want things to change.
Louisiana enacted three new prison reform laws in May 2012, including one that gave prosecutors discretion to waive mandatory minimum prison terms for nonviolent, nonsex offenses. On the federal level, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., majority whip in the House, has spoken out in support of criminal justice reform. The bipartisan support for reform cannot be overstated — Scalise’s remarks came in advance of a trip to a West Virginia penitentiary, which included House leadership staff from both parties. Support for reform comes from across the nation, and both sides of the aisle. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is supported by a distinguished bipartisan group including Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. David Vitter is a member of the Judiciary Committee (which oversees criminal justice legislation) and has not yet announced his support of the bill. Time is running out for Vitter to get behind this critical measure, which will be voted on by the committee on Oct. 22. In his run for governor, Vitter has expressed a desire to reform Louisiana’s criminal justice policies, including holding a closed-door forum with criminal justice experts earlier this year. And in the Senate, he has introduced the Youth PROMISE Act, which would prevent juvenile delinquency, especially among at-risk youth. But if the senator wants to show he is serious about fixing criminal justice issues, he must support the Senate bill. Endorsing it would demonstrate to voters that Vitter understands what it takes to rectify Louisiana’s incarceration issues.
Our label as the prison capital of the world is not a title we should be proud of, but it does mean Louisianans have the most to gain from reforming our broken criminal justice system, especially in light of our pervasive budget problems. Although we have the most room for improvement, if our leaders are proactive, perhaps one day Louisiana’s criminal justice system will be held up as a model in how to effectively and efficiently combat serious crime while eliminating inordinately heavy-handed and wasteful penalties that serve no purpose.
Lawyer Greg Thompson holds a Juris Doctor degree from the Loyola University College of Law. He served New Orleans as an assistant district attorney with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office before starting his private practice in 2011. He currently serves on the governing board of Audubon Charter School and is the executive director for Louisianans for Responsible Reform, an organization devoted to reducing Louisiana’s incarceration rates.