Criminal Justice

Right and left partnered in fight to reduce incarceration, but sheriffs killed most bills

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.

“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.   

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About 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. Prior to that, he spent 13 years as a reporter for the Miami Herald, where he was twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams while covering state government, the city of Miami and national politics. He also was a foreign correspondent based in South America. Before the Herald, he covered politics for seven years at The Times-Picayune. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke (1994) and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards (2001). He can be reached at (504) 810-6222.

  • Thank you Mr. Bridges, and thanks x 100 to the coalitions that pushed for change.
    Please keep us informed on if and how we can help get reforms similar to Texas.
    Organizations to join?
    Links to bullet points (outside of
    Best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

  • disqus_ayvQwhvS6h

    Thank you for this. I hope the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association is held accountable for their impedance.

  • Will switching weed to a misdemeanor promote “responsibility?
    One talks about lowering “incarceration costs” but what about “social costs” like EBT, Sect 8, SNAP, rehab, mental rehab, etc…and school costs?
    You already made alcohol legal, but did that lower “social costs” as opposed to “incarceration costs”? Apparently, not it did not.

    There will be NO FREE LUNCH in lowering the penalties of weed, just like alcohol and the list of other sins didn’t lower the overall costs.


    The Legalize It, Regulate It, and Tax It Crowd have nothing to show for themselves except to prove that there is NO FREE LUNCH.

    They said “Legalize It, Regulate It and Tax It” for
    1) alcohol
    2) lottery
    3) video poker and
    4) casinos

    And now WEED? The social costs will SKYROCKET with weed.
    For the politicians and pro-weed to say it generates taxes is BIG TALK and HYPE, just like it was for alcohol, the lottery, video poker and casinos and it will be the same for weed. There is no FREE LUNCH, including those countries in Europe who say otherwise as you can already see the EURO will eventually breakup and many countries are BANKRUPT over in Europe regardless of the mortgage crisis.

    The Pro-Weed types are the like the panhandlers and homeless with the “Will for work for food” signs.
    They LIE, LIE, LIE, LIE, LIE, LIE. That’s what happens when you are addicted.