Criminal Justice Reform in Louisiana
FACT VS FICTION
Fiction: Prison reforms are too complicated, will lead to unintended consequences, and should have been studied longer before being passed and implemented.
FACT: After nearly a year of study, in March 2017, the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force released a report with recommendations for comprehensive criminal justice reforms. With strong, bipartisan majorities, the Louisiana legislature passed ten bills to overhaul Louisiana’s criminal justice system.
These reforms have broad support from the Louisiana business community and well-established conservative organizations, are data-driven, crafted in partnership with law enforcement, and more importantly, have already worked in other conservative southern states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina.
These smart justice reforms have helped states reduce crime and recidivism rates, increase public safety, lower prison populations, and save billions of tax dollars.
Fiction: The reforms do nothing but release a bunch of dangerous prisoners who will commit new crimes and make our streets even less safe.
FACT: These reforms are directly aimed at creating a criminal justice system that reduces crime rates and reinvests significant fiscal savings in re-entry programs that have proven to reduce instances of recidivism. Dramatic success has been achieved in other conservative southern states after the passage of similar reforms. In Georgia crime rates have dropped 10%, in Texas, crime rates have dropped 30% while prison populations have declined by 16%, and South Carolina has seen both crime rates and imprisonment rates drop 16% (even without any upfront reinvestment dollars).
Louisiana’s traditional sentencing and corrections system has been ineffective in changing criminal behavior. These reforms give judges and the parole board more discretion to determine who goes to prison and for how long, based on the best research in the field.
Fiction: Most of the people serving long prison sentences in Louisiana are violent criminals.
FACT: More than two-thirds of Louisiana’s prison admissions were those convicted of nonviolent crimes and with no violent prior convictions on record with the Department of Corrections. Louisiana sends nonviolent offenders to prison at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, despite nearly identical crime rates.
Fiction: Louisiana’s incarceration rate isn’t that badly out of line with our peer states.
FACT: Prior to these reforms, Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate in the world! Louisiana has similar crime rates to other states in the South, but sends people to prison for nonviolent offenses at a far higher rate, and with nothing to show for it in terms of increased public safety.
Fiction: The reforms were not implemented safely since there’s little or no upfront investment in prison alternatives.
FACT: All of the reforms – even without new investments – are based on the best proven successes in other states and the best available research in the field on what works to reduce crime and recidivism. South Carolina, for example, adopted reforms without investing any money into programming, but still saw declines in both crime and incarceration.
Louisiana’s reforms have been demonstrated to work elsewhere.
Fiction: Keeping offenders in prison for longer reduces recidivism.
FACT: Lengthy prison terms are a primary driver of Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation imprisonment rate as well as skyrocketing costs. Roughly 7,000 prisoners in Louisiana have already spent more than 10 years behind bars, an increase of more than 50% in the last decade.
By the end of 2015, nearly 20 percent of those in Louisiana’s prisons had been there longer than 10 years and prison sentences for common nonviolent offenses had gotten longer. Most prison admissions that same year were people who failed on probation and parole.
These reforms reserve long prison sentences for the most serious offenders who post the greatest risk to the public.
Fiction: These reforms are really just the work of out of state liberal groups who are more concerned about the welfare of the criminals than the safety of the people.
FACT: The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force is a bipartisan group comprised of law enforcement, court practitioners, community members, and legislators. Bill sponsors for the justice reinvestment reform package included six Republicans, two Democrats, and an Independent. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association, faith leaders, business leaders, and a coalition of advocates and community members endorsed the package.
These reforms have broad support from the Louisiana business and well-established business and free-market organizations and coalitions including Smart on Crime, C100 Louisiana, Pelican Institute for Public Policy, Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, One Acadiana, Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Greater New Orleans, Inc, Crowley Chamber of Commerce, Right on Crime and many more.
Fiction: These reforms really don’t have a significant impact on the state’s budget and really don’t save Louisiana’s taxpayers much money at all.
Fact: Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation imprisonment rate costs taxpayers nearly $700 million per year. The criminal justice reforms would safely reduce Louisiana’s prison population by 10% and save $262 million over the next 10 years. Seventy percent of these savings – an estimated $184 million – will be reinvested into programs that reduce repeat offenders and support victims of crime.
Louisiana should pass measures to focus prison beds on the most serious offenders, and reinvest a portion of the incarceration savings into evidence-backed alternatives for nonviolent offenders that increase public safety. Other states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina that passed Justice Reinvestment reform packages have reduced imprisonment and saved billions, while crime continues to decline. Read Pew’s recent report on justice reinvestment HERE. Check out Smart on Crime Louisiana’s fact sheet HERE. See the recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Task Force HERE.
Recidivism reduction strategies and re-entry services are a key component of criminal justice reform. To that end Smart on Crime Louisiana has endorsed the Louisiana Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (LA-PRI) as a proven model to help address these issues here in Louisiana. Find out more about LA-PRI HERE.
As part of the efforts of the LA-PRI, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), workforce development agencies and the United Way of Southeast Louisiana are developing a model to increase the employability of former state prisoners called the Ready4Work Model. The Model emphasizes pre-release training, employer involvement and post-release case management. Smart on Crime Louisiana endorses the approach. Find out more about the Ready4Work Model HERE.
Two years ago, Louisiana created protections for employers that hire those with a criminal record, enacting legislation that limited liability for negligent hiring or failure to supervise unless the employer knew or should have known of the conviction, and the acts were substantially related to the original offense, or if the criminal record included a violent crime or sex offense.
This policy is working to expand employment opportunities for Louisianans, but should be updated to allow a judge to issue a “Certificate of Employability” to those under supervision of a re-entry court. This would expand protection for employers and bolster employment for those supervised by a re-entry court, increasing their chances of a success.
In addition, a policy to limit liability for mentors used by specialty courts in Louisiana would ensure mentors are able to volunteer and serve our communities by guiding and coaching those probationers supervised by the re-entry courts. This, in conjunction with employment, could help to increase the likelihood of stable employment and continued crime-free behavior.
Finally, re-entry courts were started in 2011 in Louisiana, and have now spread across the state to help nonviolent offenders successfully work towards a productive and crime-free life. This initiative was begun as a partnership between judges, district attorneys, other system stakeholders, and the staff at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in order to increase rehabilitative opportunities and employment of those re-entering society. Programming within the re-entry court includes substance abuse treatment, behavioral therapies, and vocational education at LSP, along with stringent post-release supervision and requirements. The Legislature should work with stakeholders to authorize the establishment of additional courts.
Current law allows Louisianans to seal certain records of nonviolent and lower-level misdemeanors and felonies if ten years have elapsed and the person remains crime-free. This policy should be expanded to additional Louisianans who have earned a chance at a fresh start. Those who have been deemed factually innocent and entitled to compensation should be able to wipe their slates clean, and, after giving the Louisiana Bureau of Criminal Identification and Information a chance to object and explain why sealing these records should not be granted, extending this policy to aggravated battery, second degree battery, aggravated assault, aggravated criminal damage to property, simple robbery, purse snatching, or illegal use of weapons or dangerous instrumentalities could help thousands more turn their lives around. Importantly, this fresh start would only be allowed for those who have remained crime-free and employed for 10 years.
In Louisiana, over 17,000 people are released from prison and re-enter society each year. This represents a significant portion of Louisiana’s population and workforce. However, under our current policies, men who have been incarcerated work 9 weeks less per year and take home 40 percent less pay annually than their colleagues.
Instead of creating economic obstacles, Louisiana could ensure that employers are able to safely and securely hire those with a criminal record. The state could also ensure that those who have earned a second chance are able to obtain housing and achieve gainful employment. This makes good economic sense but would also make our state demonstrably safer. Employment has been linked with lower recidivism rates, meaning these policies could both boost employment and cut crime. This policy agenda will strengthen Louisiana’s economy, lift up its citizens, and restore our communities.
The application for state and local government jobs in Louisiana should not inquire into criminal records. Instead, this inquiry should come at the interview stage, where the applicant has the chance to explain the record, provide context, and offer proof of rehabilitation. This would ensure all have a fair chance at being considered for the state or local government job.
Nineteen other states have already enacted such policies for government jobs, and several large corporations have voluntarily chosen to do so as well, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Koch Industries.
This policy would not require any state or local government to hire a particular applicant, nor would it prevent a state or local government employer from conducting a background check. It would merely prevent a criminal record from being an automatic bar to consideration for employment, and delay the inquiry into the criminal record until the applicant can explain it fully. Further, this policy would apply only to state and local government jobs, not to private entities.