Under prodding from an unusual coalition of organizations, the state Legislature took modest steps this year to reduce Louisiana’s incarceration rate — the highest per capita in the nation.

Lawmakers passed several measures that will either keep some non-violent offenders from entering prison or will provide an early release for others already behind bars. For example, one measure will mean early release for about 30 elderly inmates with health problems.

“The low-hanging fruit we’ve already done,” said state Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee.

But other proposals pushed by the coalition of liberal, business and conservative groups did not become law, including some that would have gone further in reducing the state’s inmate population. One high-profile measure that failed would have followed Texas and other neighboring states by making possession of marijuana a misdemeanor rather than the felony it is at present for people caught with pot for at least the second time.

The measure would have reduced the sentences for about 650 people per year, saving the state $23 million in incarceration costs, according to a legislative analysis.

As expected, opposition from the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys proved insurmountable.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]A major challenge, he added, is that half of Louisiana’s 40,000 state inmates are held in sheriff-run local jails, “and sheriffs have a financial interest in keeping the numbers up.” [/module]“What we’ve learned is that pure lobbying is not sufficient,” said Pres Kabacoff, a prominent New Orleans developer who supported the measures to reduce incarceration. “You need a grassroots campaign that would educate the various constituencies. We have to go into communities between now and the next legislative session and educate them on how some of our practices waste money and human lives. We need to create an environment where people will want to take on sheriffs and DAs.”

Kabacoff is a leading member of Smart on Crime,* which includes business-oriented groups such as Blueprint Louisiana, the Council for 100, GNO Inc., the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council of New Orleans, as well as the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank. Smart on Crime* pushed several measures that passed but also the marijuana bill that failed.**

The Louisiana Sentencing Commission, a 22-member board drawn from the legal profession and judiciary to advise the governor, supported a package of 16 bills that included 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.

The non-partisan American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the Micah Project and other liberal groups, joined forces with Smart on Crime* to back several anti-incarceration measures, including a reduction in penalties for marijuana possession.

Another group, Louisianans for Responsible Reform, also lobbied to reduce marijuana penalties.

Not nearly enough was accomplished this session,” said Marjorie Esman, the Louisiana ACLU’s executive director. “There is too much resistance to the systemic change that Louisiana needs. It comes in part from law enforcement that has a vested interest in the status quo and in part that people don’t understand that incarcerating more people actually leads to greater public safety problems.”*

Kevin Kane, the Pelican Institute president, said Smart on Crime’s* efforts aim to make Louisiana safer by, for instance, putting drug offenders in treatment programs rather than in prison and providing programs through which inmates earn high school equivalency degrees.

Kane said the most important measure that passed this year will direct the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections to study “what we’re spending money on in corrections and what are the drivers to the incarceration rate.”

A major challenge, he added, is that half of Louisiana’s 40,000 state inmates are held in sheriff-run local jails, “and sheriffs have a financial interest in keeping the numbers up.” Sheriffs receive $24.39 per day per inmate from the state.

Update: Comment from Esman was added after the article was first published.

*Correction: As originally published, the article erroneously referred to Right on Crime, rather than Smart on Crime. Right on Crime is a Texas-based conservative group that supports the Louisiana group, Smart on Crime.

**The link was added after the initial publication of this article.   

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....