Home > civil liberties, criminal justice > Louisiana Taking Steps To Reform Its Dysfunctional Criminal Justice System

Louisiana Taking Steps To Reform Its Dysfunctional Criminal Justice System

Per capita, Louisiana locks up more of its people than any other state in the country — and the world for that matter. You know you’re doing something wrong when you have five times the amount of prisoners than Iran and thirteen times the amount of China. Here are just some of the grisly details:

The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.

Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations.

If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.

Meanwhile, inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens. Each inmate is worth $24.39 a day in state money, and sheriffs trade them like horses, unloading a few extras on a colleague who has openings. A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.

In the past two decades, Louisiana’s prison population has doubled, costing taxpayers billions while New Orleans continues to lead the nation in homicides.

One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Crime rates in Louisiana are relatively high, but that does not begin to explain the state’s No. 1 ranking, year after year, in the percentage of residents it locks up.

In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole. A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life.

Almost every state lets judges decide when to mete out the severest punishment and when a sympathetic defendant should have a chance at freedom down the road. In Louisiana, murderers automatically receive life without parole on the guilty votes of as few as 10 of 12 jurors.

The lobbying muscle of the sheriffs, buttressed by a tough-on-crime electorate, keeps these harsh sentencing schemes firmly in place.

Luckily, the Bayou State is finally realizing just how unsustainable its incarceration policies truly are. Shrinking budgets in the state have led to a greater focus on the cost of keeping some 40,000 people behind bars — $663 million annually. In light of all this, the Louisiana legislature is taking steps to address the problem, recently passing a slew of sentencing law and other criminal justice related reforms [h/t Grits For Breakfast]:

  • Merger of separate pardon and parole boards (House Bill 518): Two members will be added to the five-member pardon board, and the seven-person panel, sitting as a “parole committee,” will decide whether to release eligible prisoners on parole. The existing parole board will cease to exist.
  • Discretion on mandatory minimums (House Bill 1068): Prosecutors, defendants and judges are given authority to make pre-trial plea agreements or post-trial sentencing agreements that call for lesser punishment than the minimum required in existing criminal statutes.
  • Parole for nonviolent, second-time offenders (House Bill 1026): Certain second-time offenders, excluding those whose crimes were sexual in nature, could be eligible for a parole hearing after serving one-third of their sentences, rather than the current requirement of one-half.
  • Parole for nonviolent offenders sentenced to life (House Bill 543): Certain nonviolent, good-behavior, low-risk lifers will be eligible for release earlier, including for the first time those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The change excludes anyone whose crimes were sexual in nature. Inmates who were sentenced between the ages of 18 and 24 must serve at least 25 years to be eligible. Those sentenced between ages 25 and 34 must serve at least 20 years. Those sentenced between ages 35 and 49 must serve at least 15 years. Those sentenced at age 50 or older must serve at least 10 years.
  • Expanded re-entry courts (House Bill 521): A pilot court program that assists released nonviolent offenders with job training and other re-entry issues will be expanded into two new judicial districts.
  • Streamlined discipline for offenders on probation (House Bill 512): In certain instances, officers will be able to use administrative sanctions to discipline offenders without taking them back to court.

While these reforms are pretty modest — primarily dealing with issues of parole and property and non-violent drug offenses — it is a step in the right direction. And any kind of reform, no matter how banal, is far better than the über draconian and punitive laws that preceded them. A step in the right direction indeed.

Image via The Times Picayune

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