Louisiana Moves To Reduce Mass Incarceration

There has been some good news from Louisiana in recent weeks. As if the removal of Confederate monuments by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) was not enough, now comes the fulfilled campaign promise of Governor  John Bel Edwards.

The state of Louisiana has the dubious distinction of leading the world in incarceration per capita. Yes, the state of Louisiana leads the world. It’s bad enough that the United States has more men and women in prison that any other country on the planet. Even worse, however, is that there are more people incarcerated in Louisiana than any other state in the country.

According to a 2014 Department of Justice report, Louisiana had 38,030 in prison, at a rate of 816 per 100,000 residents. This incarceration rate is over 100 points ahead of next highest state, which is Oklahoma. Naturally, given the political sea change in the approach to incarceration, given the unsustainable cost, it’s great that something is finally done.

Advocacy groups including the ACLU are applauding Gov. John Bel Edwards for his swift action on the issue. Acting decisively to fulfill a core campaign promise to reform the state’s criminal justice system. On June 15th, 2017, Gov. Edwards signed into law a series of measures with the intended to reduce 10% of the state’s prison population in 10 years.

“These measures represent landmark reform to Louisiana’s broken criminal justice system and a major step forward in reducing a prison population in a state that incarcerates more of its people than anywhere else in the country,” said Marjorie Esman, of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“These reforms don’t just reduce the jail and prison population, they reunite families, and ultimately strengthen our communities. Is there more work to do? Yes. Our system is complex resulting from centuries of bad policies. These reforms have us moving in the right direction and create the momentum needed to truly make our justice system fair,” she continued. Marjorie Esman is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“This is an important moment for our state, and we were proud to work with so many lawmakers, advocates across the political spectrum, and Louisianans impacted by this system to pass these substantial reforms that will have a real, positive impact on people’s lives,” added Esman.

This from the ACLU:

The measures emerged from the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Taskforce, which was launched last year, and is backed by research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Each law addresses various challenges plaguing the system, which ultimately have led to a system that has created a devastating cycle of incarceration, particularly for poor people and communities of color. The laws address various elements of the system including sentencing reform, expanding parole opportunities and improving reentry policies.

The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented, nationwide, multi-year effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system — along with the ACLU of Louisiana, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Voice of the Experience co-founded the Louisianans for Prison Alternatives coalition, and worked with bipartisan groups, business organizations, and lawmakers.

While an estimated 10% reduction in Louisiana’s prison population doesn’t sound like much. The new measures enacted, are indeed a step in the right direction. I imagine advocates for reform will push for similar criminal justice reform legislation in other states. Why? Because 90% of the 2.3 million people in prison are incarcerated in the states.

Here is a list of some of the reforms signed into law:

  • Reducing and eliminating mandatory minimums
  • Raising the weight and monetary thresholds on drug and property offenses
  • Reducing habitual offender penalties
  • Expanding parole eligibility
  • Strengthening reentry by increasing opportunities for professional licensing and access to public benefits
  • Expanding drug offense diversion and substance use disorder probation eligibility, so more people in need of treatment are not imprisoned due to addiction
  • Creating a medical treatment furlough program
  • Tailoring fines and fees to a person’s ability to pay and creating debt forgiveness for those who make consistent payments
  • Eliminating incarceration or driver’s license suspension for failure to pay fines and fees if the person was unable to pay (as opposed to willfully refusing to pay)
  • Reinvesting 70% of the savings from prison population reduction into prison alternatives, programs that reduce recidivism, and services that support victims of crime

In more great news, Louisiana’s governor also signed House Bill 688 into law. This law makes Louisiana the first state in the country to ban questions about criminal history on college applications. With a criminal history being a barrier to upward mobility for many, this measure is also a step in the right direction. Proponents of the law say such questions discourages applicants with a criminal history from pursuing higher education.

The law doesn’t prevent a college from asking about a student’s criminal history after he or she has been admitted in regards to financial aid or campus housing. The new law also does make exceptions for inquiry about aggravated sexual assault or stalking convictions. And, there is also an appeals process in place if an applicant is denied based on the exception.

“What research shows is that two out of three people with convictions that want to go to college when they start the application and they see the question, they stop,” said Annie Freitas, program director with the Louisiana Prison Education Coalition, to WVUE Fox 8.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama asked colleges to voluntarily remove criminal history questions from their applications. Some public university systems such as New York’s and California’s and a few private colleges have complied, according to NPR. But, Louisiana became the first in the nation to do so statewide.