Of all the "bad" rankings for Louisiana, one stands out on a global scale: Our state has the highest rate of incarceration (816 per 100,000 residents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics) in the world's most jail-happy nation. That makes Louisiana the world's incarceration leader.
Finally, a concerted effort is underway to change that. A bipartisan package of 10 legislative bills — backed by progressives and conservatives — would bring significant criminal justice reform to Louisiana. Three key bills in the package passed the state Senate last week, shortly after Gov. John Bel Edwards convinced the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA) to back the measures after some significant amendments. We urge lawmakers to adopt the entire package, with no further amendments.
Senate Bill 139 by state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, would address the state's sentencing and parole guidelines for non-violent criminals, allowing more paths toward rehabilitation, probation and parole. It also allows medical furlough for some inmates to receive care outside prison walls, meaning their medical bills largely would be paid by federal Medicaid dollars rather than by Louisiana taxpayers. Senate Bills 220 and 221 by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, reconfigures mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Collectively, the measures reverse decades of over-the-top sentences for non- violent drug possession offenses that have served only to overcrowd jails without reducing crime.
The substance of the bills was drafted by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a group of 15 business, legal and civic leaders that included Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, Criminal Court Judge Laurie White, the chair of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, the Rev. Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum, Flozell Daniels of the Foundation for Louisiana and legislators from both political parties.
The task force studied best practices in other states and estimated its recommendations would save the state $305 million by 2027. The bills as amended would save an estimated $262 million in that same period, but they now will apply $184 million toward crime-reduction and victim assistance programs — up from $154 million in the original package. This is an encouraging sign.
What remains are proposed changes to sentencing guidelines for Louisiana's felony statutes, which were always the biggest challenge. While the DAs drew a line — this year — on a proposal to adopt a tiered system for classifying felonies for sentencing purposes, they promised to revisit this concept down the line. "We are going to support the package, and if it proves to be effective we can consider going further in future years," said Pete Adams, executive director of the LDAA.
Edwards made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his 2015 campaign for governor, and he took some flak for it from opponent David Vitter, whose scare-tactic ads accused Edwards of wanting to release "thugs" from prison. That was never the case, as the reforms' widespread support makes clear. While the bills as amended contain substantial changes from the justice task force's recommendations, they're a big step toward ending Louisiana's dubious status as the world's leading jailer. We hope lawmakers will pass these needed reforms.