By any metric, there are too many nonviolent people in Louisiana jails — and putting them there has not reduced our state's violent crime rate in any measurable way. We have roughly the same rate of violence as our neighboring states; we just incarcerate more nonviolent offenders. If anything, putting too many nonviolent offenders in jail often turns them into potentially violent offenders after they are released. Think about that as you ponder one more statistic: 95 percent of the people in jail in Louisiana will be released at some point.
Study after study shows America imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other industrialized country, and Louisiana imprisons more of its citizens than any other state. What we've been doing clearly hasn't worked.
One of the few unqualified successes of the 2017 legislative session was a serious, bipartisan effort to enact a package of criminal justice reform bills. The goal — and it's a comparatively modest one — is to shrink Louisiana's nonviolent prison population by 10 percent over the next decade.
We'll see one of the first fruits of those reforms Nov. 1, when the Louisiana Department of Corrections will release approximately 1,400 nonviolent prisoners, none of whom were convicted of sexually related offenses. The policies leading to their release were crafted by a broad coalition of prison reform advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, crime survivors and other stakeholders. The reforms are estimated to save the state $262 million over the next decade.
These facts make little difference to unscrupulous politicians who demagogue the issue by claiming lawmakers who supported the reforms are "soft on crime." That, in fact, already happened in the Jefferson Parish Council election. Kenner Councilman Dominick Impastato has aired TV ads falsely claiming that state Sen. Danny Martiny, who authored one of the bills in the reform package, "is willing to let violent criminals go free." That claim is a shameless lie.
Sadly, such attacks are likely to intensify in the statewide elections of 2019. Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supported the reforms, already seems to be girding himself against false claims that he's "soft on crime." Last week, an Edwards adviser issued a statement pointing out that most of the 1,400 nonviolent prisoners being released on Nov. 1 are getting out "just eight weeks earlier than their projected release date under the previous policy."
One of the smartest aspects of the reform package is a provision that 70 percent of the $262 million saved by the changes must be reinvested in programs designed to prevent crime and recidivism via job training and education programs. As the two candidates left vying to be New Orleans' next mayor hone their crime-fighting messages for the Nov. 18 runoff, we hope they will articulate specific proposals to implement the kind of programs anticipated by the reforms that lawmakers adopted last spring. Reducing crime requires more than hiring more cops and paying them more. It demands being smart and honest on crime by improving the quality of life for all citizens.