An unusual coalition of organizations are hoping to ease sentencing requirements for some crimes, either keeping convicts from seeing the inside of a prison cell, or lessening the time they spend in one. Credit: Courtesy of Digital Archaeology, CoDiFi via Flickr under Creative Commons license

“Get tough on crime” was the mantra for many lawmakers nationwide in the past 25 years. And policy-makers in Louisiana took it to heart – perhaps more so than anywhere else.

Without question, Louisiana leads the country in the percentage of its residents imprisoned, with a rate twice as high as the national average. In fact, the state’s figures vie for worst in the world, inviting comparisons to countries such as North Korea.

An unusual new coalition — leftist groups, prominent business leaders, a right-wing think tank and the American Civil Liberties Union — is trying to end this distinction. The coalition will get its first crack at reducing Louisiana’s incarceration rate during the three-month legislative session that began Monday.

The coalition is pushing measures that would give judges leeway to impose lighter sentences for people convicted of nonviolent crimes such as marijuana possession, make more inmates eligible for parole, and move sick, elderly inmates from prisons to nursing homes.

“There’s a growing recognition from many different sectors of the state that Louisiana’s criminal justice policies are excessively expensive and are not as effective as they could be,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the New Orleans-based Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

Groups such as Kaplan’s have argued for years that Louisiana’s “lock ‘em up” approach has discriminated against the poor and African-Americans, who disproportionately fill the state’s prisons. And, they say, it has not made the state demonstrably safer.

Now influential conservatives and business leaders have joined the cause.

“I have taken the side of law enforcement: just put the bad guys behind bars. I have tended to stress keeping the streets safe,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a small, Libertarian-minded think tank in New Orleans.“I still think those things. But I hadn’t fully educated myself on who is really behind bars.

There are a lot of people behind bars who did not engage in violent crime. There are a lot of people behind bars who don’t pose a threat to society.”

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, called the coalition “strange bedfellows.”

The Louisiana Sentencing Commission, a 22-member board from the legal profession and judiciary that advises the governor, is supporting a package of 16 bills that includes some of the same measures supported by the coalition. Judge Fredericka Wicker of the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal played a lead role in getting legislators to sponsor the measures.

Another bipartisan group that just formed — Louisianians for Responsible Reform — is working to lessen sentences for marijuana users.

Convincing lawmakers to go easier on nonviolent criminals won’t be easy. Over the past 25 years, state legislators passed laws lengthening sentences for many crimes, creating long  mandatory sentences for many others and making it harder for inmates to win parole.

Bills supported by the Sentencing Commission:HB 790 by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, would allow parishes to permit people who have been arrested for certain offenses to be released on a cash deposit in lieu of bondHB 680 by Rep. Jackson would raise the bar for charging certain thefts as feloniesSB 277 by state Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, would clarify the state’s drunk driving law.SB 532 by state Sen. Ellery Guillory, R-Opelousas, would create courts to adjudicate cases involving veterans involving drugs and alcohol as is done in drug courtSB 398 by state Sen. Fred Mills Jr., R-New Iberia, would permit more drug felons to participate in drug court programs.SB 256 by Sen. Mills would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and benefit restrictions for certain drug convictions.SB 275 by Sen. Mills would eliminate the crime of drug traffic loitering, which the state Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.SB 257 by Sen. Mills would create a misdemeanor charge for first time offenders who purchase or transport supplies for the operation of a clandestine drug lab.HB 16 by state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, would authorize the 15th Judicial District Court (Lafayette) to establish a special court to rehabilitate certain incarcerated inmates to re-enter civil society.HB 732 by Rep. Jackson would authorize the waiver of minimum mandatory sentences for certain  crimes of violence.HB 745 by state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, would allow judges to waive minimum mandatory sentences in certain instances.SB 383 by state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, would expand parole eligibility for certain non-violent crimes.HB 731 by Rep. Jackson would create a procedure for designating certain crimes in the court minutes as a crime of violence.SB 472 by Sen. Mills would raise the standards for the Parole Committee.HB 210 by state Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer, would expand eligibility for medical parole.SB 240 by state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, would require state Supreme Court and appeals court clerks of court to transmit rulings to local clerks of court and the Department of Corrections

“No legislators ever take any heat for putting or keeping someone in jail for a long time,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner. “As long as you can live with the fiscal consequences, it’s fine.”

But that tally is growing. A 2013 study reported that the state spends twice as much in inflation-adjusted dollars as 20 years ago, when Louisiana had half as many inmates. There are now 39,299 inmates in custody, down from last year’s peak of 40,170, reports the Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

In the current fiscal year, Louisiana will spend $648 million to house, feed, transport, to provide parole and probation supervision and to provide health care for its inmates, according to the Department of Public Safety & Corrections. That’s money the state can’t spend on fixing roads, hiring more teachers or new college classes.

These figures represent the number of convicted criminals serving time on state felony convictions, but they don’t include inmates in local jails awaiting trial, inmates sentenced to parish time in local jails or federal prisoners housed in Louisiana.

 Three factors are bringing the left and the right together in Louisiana to reduce the number of people in prison.

One factor was Cindy Chang’s eight-part series published by The Times-Picayune in May 2012, called “Louisiana Incarcerated.”

“In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole,” Chang wrote. “A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life.”

Chang reported that Louisiana’s laws give sheriffs – especially in rural areas – an economic incentive to maintain the status quo because of the payments they receive from the state to house convicts. About half of Louisiana’s 39,300 inmates are in parish jails – the highest rate in the nation.

“If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money,” Chang wrote. “Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.”

The series prompted Pres Kabacoff, a New Orleans developer and civic leader, to write a letter to the editor decrying Louisiana’s punitive approach.

Afterward, Kabacoff said in a recent interview, “I began thinking that it [the letter] was not enough.” He has become involved with Smart on Crime, which is part of the coalition seeking to reduce the incarceration rate.

Smart on Crime has raised $150,000 to hire a Baton Rouge-based lobbyist and to bring outside experts to Louisiana to buttress concerns that pushing for change will make lawmakers vulnerable to accusations of being soft on crime. Blueprint Louisiana, a Baton Rouge-based group of business leaders, also supports Smart on Crime.

Looking to Texas as an example

Another factor has been a desire to emulate Texas. Lawmakers there in 2007 rejected plans to build three more prisons. Instead, they boosted spending for drug and alcohol addiction treatment, stepped up efforts to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and increased job training for inmates scheduled for release. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative group, has led the way.

“When you think of tough law and a no-nonsense place, you think of Texas,” said New Orleans businessman Jay Lapeyre. “They’re not soft on crime. So there must be some logic behind it.”

Lapeyre backs the effort, as does Gregory Rusovich, another New Orleans businessman and civic leader.

Rusovich said inmates need drug treatment, job training and parole and probation programs.

“If what we do is change the law without giving people a place to go to for the assistance they need, it won’t achieve the result we want,” he said.

Advocates in Louisiana for reduced sentences have noted that Georgia and several other states with Republican governors have followed Texas’ example.

“We are becoming an outlier, even among conservative states,” Kane said.

 Right-wing leaders nationwide join effort

A third factor behind the push in Louisiana has been the creation of “Right on Crime,” a national organization backed by prominent conservatives. The group believes that lessening sentences for nonviolent offenders, such as those caught with drugs, and spending more on rehabilitation programs can not only save taxpayer money but also make the streets safer.

The group includes anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“While the growth of incarceration took many dangerous offenders off the streets,” the group says on its website, “research suggested that it reached a point of diminishing returns, as recidivism rates increased and more than one million nonviolent offenders filled the nation’s prisons.”

Providing impetus for the push: crime rates have been dropping nationally.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, of course, will play a critical role in what happens this session. The governor has won plaudits from advocates for sentencing changes by reinstituting the Louisiana Sentencing Commission in 2008 and supporting several modest sentencing reductions.

The governor’s office emailed a statement to The Lens which said that Jindal supports “passing common sense sentencing reforms that, when appropriate, lessen sentences for non-violent drug use offenders while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders. We’re committed to reducing incarceration rates and rehabilitating inmates so they do not return to jail.”

Not everyone is willing to lighten sentences

But many conservatives, it appears, remain skeptical.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, represents the hard-line stance on criminal punishment. His views are particularly important because he is chairman of the Senate committee that handles sentencing legislation.

Kostelka, who was a district attorney for eight years and a judge for 20, said he’s not concerned by Louisiana’s high incarceration rate.

“If you do the crime, you do the time. Crime comes from poverty and kids without parents,” Kostelka said, adding that those problems needed to be solved first. “We’re not putting innocent people in jail. We’re not incarcerating people unless they’ve been convicted and are guilty.”

As for the changes in Texas and Georgia, “I am not moved by what is happening elsewhere,” Kostelka said.

 He remains dead-set against House Bill 14, sponsored by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. The bill would reduce sentences for second and third convictions of marijuana possession. Jindal supports the measure, said press secretary Shannon Bates by email.

Badon said the measure would save the state about $4 million a year.

“Republicans understand there are better ways to spend tax dollars,” he said.

“It would be a smart financial decision for the state”  because it would transfer costs to the federal government.— State Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee

In February, the Louisiana Sentencing Commission endorsed the bill. Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said his group will not fight the measure.

State Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, is chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee. He takes a more moderate view than does Kostelka, having sponsored two of the three laws that reduced some sentences and gave the parole board discretion to impose lesser penalties rather than send parolees to prison.

Lopinto does not oppose Badon’s bill but said it would affect too few inmates — no more than 100, he estimates — to make much of a difference.

Another measure, Senate Bill 323, by State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, and state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, would go further by downgrading the second and third convictions of marijuana possession to misdemeanors.

Adams said the district attorneys are willing to support some changes but draw the line at making marijuana possession a misdemeanor or reducing sentences for violent offenders. He noted that many released convicts get  in trouble again. A study showed that nearly 50 percent of inmates return to prison within five years after being released.

State Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer, is sponsoring House Bill 210, which would make more infirm inmates eligible for release. Martiny has a similar measure with Senate Bill 229.

Lopinto also supports releasing infirm inmates to nursing homes.

“It would be a smart financial decision for the state,” he said, because it would transfer costs to the federal government.

Any far-reaching bills would run headlong into the sheriffs — a political force throughout Louisiana – who receive $24.39 per day per inmate. Chang reported that they use some of that money to fund their other operations.

“Sheriffs and DAs have always been the roadblock,” said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project in Baton Rouge, who as a Times-Picayune Capitol reporter wrote an article in the “Louisiana Incarcerated” series.

Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, did not respond to an email or return a phone call.

 Kane said he is hopeful that will change will come, at some point.

 “The fact that conservatives are involved in the effort does matter in a state with a Republican governor and Legislature,” he said.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....