Yolanda Castillo (left) holds a sign at the steps of the State Capitol. Her nephew is 40 years old and has been incarcerated for 21 years. Castillo was one of several demonstrators Thursday who came with the Louisianans for Prison Alternatives to advocate bills this session that would reform Louisiana incarceration.
The Louisiana State Capitol was flooded with a sea of bright blue T-shirts Thursday when more than 100 members of the group Louisianans for Prison Alternatives
came to support bills relating to incarceration reform.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) also was there to support the group. Sarah Omojola, an SPLC policy counsel in New Orleans, said twice as many people as expected showed up for the demonstration.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and legislators have grown concerned about the costs. Some district attorneys' and sheriffs' organizations oppose the changes.
Omojola said keeping so many people in prison has not provided the desired return in reducing crime. She said neighboring states have lower incarceration rates, despite having the same crime rates as many Louisiana communities.
Her group also wants state sentencing laws to be more consistent. For example, Omojola said a Louisiana offender can get more time for possessing a stolen iPhone than for stealing one — a difference between six months and 10 years. “That’s out of whack,” she said.
Senate Bill 139
by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, looks to solve such policy gaps. Another bill — Senate Bill 16
by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge — would abolish life-parole sentencing for juveniles, except in the most severe cases, such as a school shooting or serial murder. The bill would provide parole eligibility — not immediate release — for those already serving under juvenile life sentences without parole.
Omojola said the state sentences juveniles to life without parole for serious offenses about 81 percent of the time, though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a juvenile should be given a life sentence without parole only in the rarest instances.
“So our laws are illegal because they are not in line with what the Supreme Court says,” she said.
Luke Silva, one of those who showed up in the bright blue shirts, said his 40-year-old grandson has been incarcerated for 21 years for being involved in a shooting as a teenager. “[The judge] tried to make him out to be the criminal,” said Silva’s daughter, Yolanda Castillo. “It was his first offense.”
Other bills would eliminate inconsistencies in the lengths of prison sentences and provide more support for some prisoners re-entering the community.