Louisiana lawmakers will struggle to make sense of our state's fiscal mess when they convene next month, and that struggle will overshadow all other pressing matters. Yet there's one overarching issue on which legislators of all stripes ought to agree: the need for meaningful criminal justice reform.
Reforming Louisiana's criminal justice system is actually a fiscal issue. We spend way too much money incarcerating nonviolent offenders — upwards of $700 million a year on corrections. That cost has gotten so out of hand that sentencing reform has become a rallying point for a growing number of conservative Republicans. More need to get on board.
Locking up nonviolent offenders doesn't make us tough on crime, it makes us dumb on crime — because it turns nonviolent people into hardened criminals while they're behind bars. Most of them get out at some point. You know what happens next.
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, judges, lawyers, criminal justice experts and community leaders spent the past year forging consensus around a comprehensive overhaul of the state's incarceration policies. The coalition, known as the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, aims to accomplish five main goals:
• Bring consistency to sentencing and release practices.
• Focus prison beds on those who pose a serious threat to public safety.
• Strengthen community supervision.
• Remove barriers to successful reentry into the community and the workforce.
• Reinvest a substantial portion of the savings into evidence-backed alternatives to prison, programs that reduce recidivism, and services to support victims of crime.
If adopted by lawmakers, the task force recommendations would reduce the state's prison population by 13 percent over the next decade, reduce the number of people supervised in the community by 16 percent, and save taxpayers $305 million.
The overhaul was immediately embraced by Gov. John Bel Edwards, House Speaker Taylor Barras and Senate President John Alario. Edwards is a Democrat; Barras and Alario are Republicans. Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson, a task force member, likewise praised the recommendations — as did business leaders and conservatives.
"The business community is standing behind lawmakers who support the task force recommendations," said coalition member Elain Ellerbe, who is the Louisiana director of Right on Crime, a conservative coalition. "Legislators should boldly pursue these reforms and refrain from listening to critics who would use scare tactics to defend the failed policies of the past." Ellerbe added that the reforms give elected leaders "the opportunity to repair Louisiana's sad reputation as America's prison capital."
Among the early conservative advocates for sentencing reform was the late Kevin Kane, founder of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a Louisiana-based think tank that supports the recommendations. Kane worked tirelessly for years to get conservatives behind prison reform before he died last October. Passage of the reforms would be a fitting tribute to his efforts.
Civil libertarians have their own reasons for backing the reforms, of course. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter why someone supports this effort; it only matters that it gets done. We need to get smart on crime. Now.