Holly Harris Credit: U.S. Justice Action Network
With 6,000 inmates in residence, the state pen at Angola is only the largest of several such facilities in Louisiana, not to mention sheriffs' lockups in every parish.
With more than 6,000 inmates, Angola is only the largest of several state pens in the nation’s most incarcerating state. Credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

If any candidate running for public office were to win 82.6 percent of the vote, it would rightly be called a landslide.

Recently, a U.S. Justice Action Network poll found that 82.6 percent of likely Louisiana voters support criminal justice reform. That support spans the ideological spectrum, with 81 percent of conservatives, 87 percent of liberals and 84 percent of moderates backing reform.

In other words, criminal justice reform is winning landslide support with Louisiana Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

In today’s deeply divided, highly partisan political climate, this degree of consensus on a public policy issue is remarkable. So, if Louisiana’s new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, in office just since Jan. 11, and the Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature genuinely want to reach across the aisle and actually get something done for the people of Louisiana, there are few legislative initiatives more likely to find common ground than criminal justice reform.

Given the currently condition of Louisiana’s criminal justice system, landslide support for reform in the Pelican State should come as no surprise.

Louisiana has the dubious distinction of having the nation’s highest recorded incarceration rate and clocks in with 50 percent more people in prison per capita than the national average.  This makes the state one of the highest incarcerators in the world.

At last count, in data reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Louisiana’s incarceration rate in 2014 was 816 per 100,000 residents. The next highest rate was Oklahoma, with 700 prisoners per 100,000 residents. Neighboring Mississippi has a rate of 597 per 100,000.

Despite its astronomical incarceration rate, Louisiana has not secured the public safety benefits it seeks. For example, the rest of the country (with a significantly lower incarceration rate) has a violent crime rate one-third lower than Louisiana’s. Approximately half of all those released from a Louisiana prison return within three years, a dismaying recidivism rate.

Clearly, current practices aren’t working well, and with a $600 million annual price tag on the backs of taxpayers, it’s time to change course.

In light of this information, let’s turn back to our poll:

  • More than 77 percent of Louisiana voters say there should be a cost-benefit test for the prison budget to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively.
  • 91 percent of voters say Louisiana needs more rehabilitation and job-training programs so offenders have a better chance of turning away from crime and successfully re-entering society after their sentences.
  • 74.9 percent agree that instead of sending low-risk, nonviolent offenders to prison, money should be shifted to community-supervision programs, such as probation and parole.
  • Almost 79 percent of voters would eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences and give judges more discretion in sentencing to take into account the circumstances of each case.

That latter percentage is likely to rise even higher after the Advocate reported on April 1 — no fooling! — that a five-time convicted  shoplifter faces a possible sentence of 20 years to life after being charged with pocketing $31 worth of candy bars under the state’s stiff habitual-offender laws.

No one is suggesting shoplifting shouldn’t be illegal or that it shouldn’t be punished, but the prospective punishment in this case is completely out of proportion to the crime. Indeed, when the suspect was arraigned, Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich lamented aloud that Louisiana law leaves him little discretion in sentencing.

“Isn’t this a little bit over the top?” Judge Zibilich was quoted by the Advocate as saying. “It’s not even funny. Twenty years to life for a Snickers bar, or two or three or four.”

Cases like that are strong arguments for sweeping criminal justice reform, but Louisiana doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need only look to neighboring Texas to see how it’s done.

The situation is dire, the support is overwhelming, and solutions already exist.

About a decade ago, Texas — then in the grip of the mass-incarceration craze — faced projected costs of nearly $2 billion to build additional prison beds. But instead of sending good money after bad, Texas fundamentally changed course, swapping its “tough on crime” stance for “smart on crime” policies. “Something needed to change” is how former Texas Gov. Rick Perry recalled the situation he faced in 2007. The reforms he and the Texas Legislature instituted — and which have continued under his successor, Gov. Greg Abbott — saved the Lone Star State all of the $2 billion projected construction costs while reducing the state’s crime rate close to 50-year lows.

Texas began by changing the way it handles first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, focusing on diverting “low-level offenders” with drug-addiction issues “from entering prison in the first place and programs to keep them from returning.” Then it refocused its approach to probation and parole by beefing up treatment and rehabilitation programs. These efforts reduced recidivism and made it easier for those who have served their time to re-enter society.

Texas proved it’s possible to simultaneously be “tough” and “smart” on crime, and Louisiana should follow its lead. A trio of bills now before the Louisiana Legislature would be a good place to start.

  • House Bill 347 would expand access to re-entry courts, which offer substance-abuse treatment, cognitive-behavioral education and vocational education, to nonviolent, and non-sex offenders.
  • House Bill 146 would promote mentors in the state’s specialty courts, who guide and coach probationers. Specialty courts (drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts and re-entry courts) allow for individualized, issue- and case-specific sanctions and monitoring of offenders.
  • House Bill 145 would allow judges to issue “certificates of employability” to those under supervision of a re-entry court. It would expand protection for employers and bolster employment for those supervised by a re-entry court, increasing their prospects for success.

What would this have done for the aforementioned candy bar thief? There is no evidence that he ever participated in any significant re-entry programming, so no one can say for sure. We can only hope that those who come after him are afforded the rehabilitation programming that breaks the cycle of failure. Twenty years for 30 bucks worth of candy bars is a high price to pay — for the thief who serves the time and for the taxpayers who have to finance his incarceration.

The situation is dire, the support is overwhelming, and solutions already exist.  Now we just need Louisiana legislators to demonstrate the courage and intelligence to rethink failed practices and enact smart legislation.

Holly Harris is executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.