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Business And Community Leaders Working To Reduce Louisiana's Record Incarceration Rate

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On a per-capita basis, Louisiana leads the nation in the number of people behind bars. A diverse group of business and religious leaders have come together to support laws that could lower the state’s incarceration rates.

In this latest installment of the continuing WWNO and WYES series on criminal justice reform, Marcia Kavanaugh looks into how the Louisiana Smart on Crime initiative fared in this past legislative session.

40,000 people are incarcerated in Louisiana, costing taxpayers nearly $700 million annually, according to the Vera Institute of Justice’s 2012 report The Price of Prisons.

Now, a group of business and religious leaders, oftentimes on the opposite ends of issues, came together this year to ask: “Is it worth the cost?” Does the $17,000-plus it costs to jail a person per year equate to better public safety?

“Louisiana is the capital in the U.S., highest per capita incarceration rate in the United States,” says Dr. Michael Cowan, chair of the New Orleans Crime Coalition. “In the last several years — in Texas and Tennessee and Mississippi and Georgia — a very promising thing has happened, and that is conservative business leaders looked at the math on this and determined that not only are we spending way too much money to keep people in prison, we’re not even safer as a result of it. In fact, we might even be less safe.”

Cowan says key business leaders from all over the state have been organized into an effort over the past year called Louisiana: Right on Crime. The initiative is modeled on an approach to incarceration reform taken in Texas, and people from Texas have been advising the effort.

People like Jerry Madden, the former corrections chairman in the Texas State House, who was told when he started to not build any new prisons because they cost too much.

“We started looking at programs that helped,” Madden says. “We looked at drug treatment. We looked at alcohol treatment. We looked at funding for mental health. We looked at intermediate sanctions. We looked at expansion of specialty courts. All of the things that could make a difference in bringing people in to break that cycle of people coming into the criminal justice system.”

Madden says the new tactics not only worked, but they’ve seen great results in Texas, and have closed three prisons in the last three years.

“We still have plenty” of prisons, Madden says. “We have 107. That’s still quite a bit, but we’re down from 110.”

Madden assisted the Smart on Crime supporters as they tried to pass bills aimed at bringing down the number of people in Louisiana jails in the 2014 legislative session. Of nine bills proposed, seven passed.

“What we’ve seen in other states, they’ve recognized that many of the people who they have been incarcerating are really low-level non-violent offenders,” says the Pelican Institute for Public Policy’s Kevin Kane, who also helped guide the effort. “The people who we lock up, particularly for long periods of time, really just need to be the people that we’re scared of; the people who pose a genuine threat to public safety.”

Kane says that’s why state are now investing more into alternatives for incarcerations, whether that means treatment, education, or even better parole supervision, rather than locking people up for years on end.

“Not only do you get better outcomes from that, it costs less money,” he says.

Some Successes

“One of the things we want to do is make it easier for ex-offenders to rejoin the workforce,” says Kane. Getting more people into the workforce brings down recidivism — the propensity for people to commit new crimes and return to jail. If somebody can get a job and hold it for a few years, Kane says, they’re much less likely to re-offend.

One of the bills the Institute proposed was a bill to protect businesses from being sued when they hire ex-offenders. Another bill is intended to make it possible for ex-offenders to get a provisional license to practice a trade.

“We’ve got a host of licensing requirement for people here in Louisiana, and many of the licensing boards make it impossible for ex-offenders to get a license,” he says. “So, you may learn how to cut hair in prison, and then you get our and you find that you can’t even get a barber’s license.”

Getting more prisoners eligible for parole was another big step, Kane says, as is creating a new system for veterans who get arrested.

“Another are we focused on was just making more people eligible for parole consideration,” he says. “We’re not saying that everybody who’s eligible for parole should get it — but more people, particularly non-violent offenders, should at least be eligible for parole consideration.”

Another bill they supported was the creation of veterans’ courts. Louisiana has a large number of veterans, and there are a host of services available to them.

But the initiative did run into some roadblocks. The bill to lessen penalties for simple marijuana possession, upon second and subsequent conviction, was staunchly opposed by sheriffs and district attorneys across the state. The bill was deferred, but supporters say we should expect the matter to resurface in the next sessions.

And the issue of mandatory sentencing wasn’t really addressed.

“Particularly in the ’80s and ’90s in the War on Drugs, both states and the Federal government implemented very touch sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentencing,” Kane says. “So, when you look at the dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration in Louisiana, basically in about a 20-year period the number of people we have incarcerated doubled — from about 20,000 to about 40,000, really fueled by tough drug laws.”

Kane says revisiting those tough sentencing laws has to be a piece of the puzzle.

“What many states have started to do is give judges more flexibility in terms of their sentencing, so they can look at sort of the unique facts in each case and decide who needs to be locked up and who doesn’t,” he says.

But the public is wary.

“One of the challenges there is that really a lot of people just don’t have confidence in our judges,” Kane says. “I found that, in speaking to people, that’s particularly an issue here in New Orleans. A lot of people just, you know… judges have a reputation for letting people out who really don’t belong on the streets. Now, I don’t know how much that reputation is deserved or isn’t, but [the perception is] just a fact. It’s a reality we need to deal with.”

Kane says it is a question for both voters and judgeship candidates to consider in the run up to the fall elections for the Orleans Criminal District Court bench.

As for the Louisiana Smart on Crime Initiative, both Kane and Cowan say it is a long-term effort.

“Number one: we spend too much money on incarceration,” says Kane. “Number two, we have a workforce shortage here in Louisiana, and we have a lot of able-bodied young men and women who might be able to help with that. And three, even from just a public relations standpoint, do we want Louisiana to be the leader in incarceration? Especially when all these other states are taking a different approach.”

Kane and Cowan are inclined to think the corrections reform movement in Louisiana is only going to get stronger.

Watch WYES’s ongoing series on the changes to New Orleans’ criminal justice system here.

Support for WYES and WWNO criminal justice reporting comes from Baptist Community Ministries.