Louisiana may be poised to reduce its inmate population by nearly 5,000, eliminate some restrictions for prisoners convicted on drug charges and expand programs that allow people to earn a better living while incarcerated — moves that could help save the state more than $300 million over a decade. And nearly half that money could go toward targeting the state's recidivism problem.
After almost a year of meetings, the bi-partisan Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, established in 2015, has turned recommendations for criminal justice reform over to the state legislature. The state is among about 30 in the U.S. to re-examine its approach to criminal justice. Other states include the conservative strongholds of Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia. Across the nation, fiscal-minded Republicans have joined Democrats in this effort.
State changes and the new DOJ
Ironically, many of these state reforms started about a decade ago under a Justice Reinvestment Initiative — a public-private partnership run, in part, by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which falls under the Justice Department.
But the task force recommendations sit in stark contrast to the new "law and order" principles that seem to be guiding decisions from President Trump’s Department of Justice. If Louisiana's legislators are the next to embrace the reinvestment recommendations, they would, in effect, be distancing themselves from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems poised to renew a failed war on drugs.
Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo that directed the Justice Department to reduce the use of private prisons. The effort to phase out private prisons was, in part, the result of declining prison populations and concerns about safety and security. The current federal prison population of nearly 200,000 inmates is the lowest in a decade.
In addition to espousing "tough on crime" rhetoric, Sessions hired former cop and prosecutor Steven H. Cook, who spent the Obama years praising policies that ultimately separated families and sent low-level drug offenders to prison for long sentences.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards campaigned on prison reform.
His state has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, indeed the world. But the state's level of crime is comparable to that of its neighbors. Its "tough on crime" philosophy has led to longer sentences and fewer opportunities for release. Louisiana's criminal justice system has also been extremely costly without making the public measurably safer.
Last year, Mother Jones published the account of a reporter who posed as an officer at one of the state’s private prisons and reported the prison's many problems including inadequate inmate supervision and oversight, and violations of prisoners' basic rights.
Tough on crime vs. smart on crime
"The truth is our state needs to be more than just tough on crime, especially in a budget crisis," said Secretary of the Department of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc. "We need to be smart on crime." LeBlanc chaired Louisiana's task force.
The fact that maintaining a prison and its inmates is so expensive is the big reason former attorney general Eric Holder's "smart on crime” philosophy has taken hold in states. As James Stewart, reform supporter and first black district attorney of Louisiana's Caddo Parish, told me shortly after his election: “Economically, we can't afford mass incarceration.”
Louisiana has the highest imprisonment rate in the country, locking up 816 people for every 100,000 residents. According to the task force, reducing the prison rate to that of Oklahoma (the second-highest in the nation) would have saved Louisiana $49 million in 2014. In 2015, 81% of admissions to Louisiana prisons were for nonviolent offenses.
States can't afford expensive private prisons, which primarily seem to benefit two publicly traded companies, CoreCivic (which until recently was known as Corrections Corporation of America), and Geo Group. The two generous Trump contributors, whose stocks took a dive following Obama's phase-out memo, have recently experienced a surge in stock prices after Sessions rescinded the memo.
The support of privately run prisons leads to additional problems. In 2016 the Government Accounting Office reported that overcrowding at bureau facilities led to double- and triple-bunking and higher inmate-to-guard ratios — situations unsafe for both inmates and guards.
“(Louisiana) sent people to prison for drug, property and other nonviolent offenses at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, even though the states had nearly identical crime rates,” according to the task force, which recommended sentence reduction, alternative treatment programs and increased probation opportunities for non-violent offenders.
There is little doubt the DOJ under Trump and Sessions will roll back justice reforms. But thankfully states are making progress to change the system for the more than 2 million inmates in their prisons. If federal policies don't change, state approaches must.
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