There are few truly bipartisan issues in Louisiana, but the need for criminal justice reform is one of them. By any metric of any study, America is the most lock-'em-up nation in the world, and Louisiana is the most lock-'em-up state. We imprison the highest number citizens per capita in the U.S. Louisiana has barely 4 million people, yet we spend nearly $700 million a year to house prisoners. That makes no sense.
Last week, coalitions of conservatives and progressive groups held separate criminal justice reform meetings to find ways to reduce Louisiana's sky-high incarceration rate. The first, a Baton Rouge event, featured Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Mark Holden of Koch Industries along with Smart on Crime Louisiana (a coalition of business leaders and conservative groups) and the nonpartisan United Way of Southeast Louisiana. The group announced its support for recommendations made by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force (LJRTF), which says reducing incarceration rates could save $300 million over 10 years — and improve public safety.
Two days later, a second group rallied at the state Capitol in support of criminal justice reform. That group, Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA), included Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), a New Orleans group that long has advocated sensible sentencing reform. Like the conservative groups at the earlier meeting, LPA supports alternatives to prison for nonviolent crimes and "fair and consistent sentencing." LPA also calls for sensible re-entry programs to break the cycle of recidivism.
Locking up non-violent offenders and taking away any hope they have for rehabilitation is not tough on crime, it's tough on taxpayers.
It is telling that one in three convicts released from a Louisiana jail winds up back in prison within three years. That statistic, among others, has been cited by the Rev. Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum — one of the most influential conservative Christian forces in state politics — in explaining why he, too, supports sentencing reform. "For too many offenders, prison is not a place of rehabilitation, but for warehousing," Mills says in a recent YouTube video. "The problem with simply warehousing is that we graduate 17,000 ex-convicts each year. ... Taxpayers are footing an enormous bill to re-incarcerate the same folks."
Though Gambit has taken issue with Mills many times in the past, we agree with him here and we add our voice to the growing chorus of support for a program of smarter sentencing policies. We emphasize, as do conservatives and progressives alike in supporting this concept, that sentencing reform is not "soft on crime." Rather, it's "smart on crime." Locking up non-violent offenders and taking away any hope they have for rehabilitation is not tough on crime, it's tough on taxpayers.
A handful of bills in the current legislative session contain the recommendations of the task force, but despite widespread and bipartisan support for the effort, passage won't be easy. Many district attorneys and sheriffs oppose some or all of the recommendations. Among the leading opponents are the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
We hope lawmakers will listen to the leading voices that are speaking out in favor of sentencing reform. They represent the views of folks who are footing the bill on Louisiana's broken — and expensive — incarceration policies.