Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. — and in much of the world. A 2013 study by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, found that 847 of every 100,000 Louisianans were incarcerated (the national average is 395). Housing this many prisoners disrupts communities, burdens taxpayers and actually makes us less safe than most other states. The same study found Louisiana has the third-highest per-capita crime rate in America.
In the recent gubernatorial race, U.S. Sen. David Vitter criticized Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards for being "soft on crime" because Edwards supports criminal justice reform. It was a false claim. That 2013 NIC study found Louisiana has nearly 40,000 people locked up; Edwards would like to see that number reduced by 5,500 — not by setting "thugs" (Vitter's word) free but by identifying nonviolent offenders before they are locked up and emphasizing drug treatment and other "diversion" programs. If realized, Edwards' goal would make us only second in the country (behind Mississippi) when it comes to locking up our citizens. Now that the campaign is over, we hope reversing the state's woeful incarceration rate will make the governor's to-do list.
Criminal justice reform in Louisiana is a bipartisan issue. Voters from both parties overwhelmingly support it. A survey by the U.S. Justice Action Network released earlier this month showed nearly 83 percent of Louisiana voters support some reform, with 56 percent saying we need "major" reform. Most of all, three-fourths of those surveyed agreed that community diversion programs make more sense than sending low-risk, nonviolent offenders to jail.
These ideas are popular across the spectrum. The right-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy, the liberal American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and many business groups are in favor of them. In the 2014 Louisiana legislative session, the umbrella group Smart on Crime Louisiana made some headway — expanding parole eligibility for medical reasons and allowing more nonviolent offenders a chance for parole.
Though lawmakers took the first steps toward creating the infrastructure for medical marijuana to be available in Louisiana (and Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the law), some attempts to soften Louisiana's draconian recreational marijuana laws went nowhere. That has been the case for many years. Any discussion of prison reform in Louisiana should nonetheless take into account the large number of people serving hard time on minor marijuana charges — as well as the state's mandatory minimum sentences for "distribution or cultivation" of marijuana, which begins at five years for any amount.
Despite some scare ads during the election, Edwards hardly is the type of governor who will let "thugs" loose on the streets to terrorize citizens. Based on his campaign promises, he should take a hard, honest look at why Louisiana locks up more people than any other state, why this isn't working to keep us safe, and what we can do about it. Along with Medicaid expansion and righting the state's fiscal ship, criminal justice reform should be a priority of the Edwards administration.