Trials and Error

Is the “Incarceration Capital of the World” Finally Ready to Lose Its Title?

Louisiana’s governor is ready to embrace criminal justice reform. The state’s district attorneys want to stop him.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, pictured on Aug. 19 in Baton Rouge, says proposed reforms would save taxpayers $305 million.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Louisiana locks up its citizens at a rate 13 times higher than China, five times higher than Iran, and far higher than anywhere else in the United States. Despite jailing people for nonviolent offenses at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, Louisiana has a nearly identical crime rate as both of those states. Given that Louisiana spends approximately $700 million annually on incarceration and is staring at a $300 million budget shortfall this year, it seems like a good time to rethink its approach.

Enter the bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Task Force, created by the state Legislature to formulate a data-driven approach for fixing the state’s criminal justice system. That task force—which includes lawmakers, members of law enforcement, the state secretary of corrections, and a crime survivor who lost a child to murder—has spent 10 months reviewing studies and listening to expert testimony. In March, the group released a set of recommendations designed to keep communities safe while reducing the number of individuals in prison. Those recommendations—which Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards claims will “reduce the state’s prison population by 13 percent over the next decade … and save taxpayers $305 million”—include broadening alternatives to incarceration, reducing penalties for drug-related crimes, ending life without parole for juveniles, expanding parole eligibility for the state’s oldest prisoners, and ameliorating the harsh effects of fines and fees.

These recommendations will likely serve as the basis for a package of bills that the state Legislature will consider during this year’s legislative session, which begins Monday. Criminal justice reform has broad support in Louisiana, including from groups like the conservative coalition Right on Crime. A 2015 survey also found that more than 80 percent of Louisiana residents support criminal justice reform. The governor is also committed to signing these proposed reforms into law. “While Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world, I refuse to believe that our people are inherently more sinister than in other parts of the world,” he said last month. “For too long this has been a drain on our state resources and done little to make our cities and towns more secure.”

While the political stars seem aligned, there’s one group standing in the way: the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

Louisiana DAs have historically taken a merciless approach to incarceration. Ascension Parish District Attorney Ricky Babin, to take one example, has stated, “There is not a single person that we put in prison that doesn’t deserve to be there.” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore recently indicated he supported locking up elementary school children for up to six months for bringing fake guns to school. And last year, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro pushed for a sentence of 20 years to life for a man who stole $31 worth of candy. (After significant criticism, Cannizzaro ultimately agreed to a two-year sentence.)

It should be no surprise then that the LDAA has refused to fully endorse any of the task force’s recommended reforms. Even with regard to the most uncontroversial proposals—those dealing with nonviolent offenders—the LDAA is urging a “stop and wait” (read: do nothing) approach. But waiting comes at great cost, both to Louisiana’s taxpayers and to those individuals who pose no risk to society and yet languish behind bars, unable to earn a degree, hold a job, or contribute to their families.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary houses nearly 5,000 people sentenced to life without the possibility of parole—the highest number per capita in the nation. To bring the state into line with its Southern neighbors, the task force recommended granting parole eligibility to those sentenced to life without parole who were not convicted of first-degree murder. For nonlifers with lengthy sentences, it recommended parole eligibility for those who have reached the age of 45 and served 20 years behind bars. 

For Gene Mills, the president of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative group “committed to defending faith, freedom and the traditional family in the great state of Louisiana,” this is one important step in an effort to “make redemption a core value throughout Louisiana’s justice system.” This policy of prioritizing the release of older inmates is also fiscally sound. In the federal system, for example, a 2015 study by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General found that “aging inmates are more costly to incarcerate than their younger counterparts.”

For their part, Louisiana’s district attorneys oppose parole consideration for the state’s longest-serving inmates, asserting that such a move “risks public safety.” This claim is false. Studies consistently find that older inmates—particularly those older than 50—reoffend upon release at a fraction of the rate of youthful offenders. In Louisiana, the vast majority of convictions occur between the ages of 20 and 29. And the task force’s recommendations don’t amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. While the proposal recommends making certain prisoners eligible for parole, the state parole board has no obligation to grant it. The task force suggests that only those who have shown “substantial growth” while incarcerated will be allowed to re-enter society. Those with long rap sheets will likely stay behind bars.

The LDAA is also ignoring the fact that Louisiana has a history of punishing people who never posed a true public safety risk. A 2013 ACLU report found that the state had an astounding 429 inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes, with 86 percent of the people in that group charged with nonviolent drug offenses.

The task force also endorses—and the district attorneys reject—a move to grant parole to more than 300 people who would otherwise die in prison as a consequence of crimes they committed as children. Since 2012, 13 states, among them Arkansas, Texas, and Utah, have ended juvenile life without parole altogether. Last year, both houses of the state Legislature supported a bill to grant these inmates the possibility of parole. The bill failed after a last-minute filibuster by a Democratic state senator who believed it was still too harsh to juvenile prisoners.

If not for that out-of-left-field filibuster, the Louisiana Legislature would’ve put an end to life sentences for juveniles. Even so, legislators tend to rely on the opinions of prosecutors, and their opposition is often enough to kill reform legislation. In 2014, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association spoke out against four bills that would change the way the state dealt with low-level marijuana users. All four died in committee.

This time around, the LDAA is trying its best to frighten legislators into ignoring the task force’s fact-based report. The LDAA has accused the bipartisan body of writing a “prescription for disaster,” and the group’s executive director says the recommendations turn “an effort to not unnecessarily incarcerate people into giving every opportunity to people to get out of jail.”

While the LDAA’s views have carried enormous weight in the past, it’s time for legislators to fight back against the group’s scare tactics. The state can no longer afford to maintain the cruel policies that have made its prison system a national shame.