It’s a well-known fact that the United States has around five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates approximately 25% of the world’s prisoners. Within that disturbing statistic is Louisiana, which has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation – with the U.S. Department of Justice reporting that, based on 2015 data, 776 out of every 100,000 residents in the state were in prison. That is substantially higher than Russia’s rate of incarceration (492 per hundred thousand) and China’s (119 per hundred thousand). As such, Louisiana is the global leader in imprisonment.
The average incarceration rate in the U.S., for both state and federal prison populations, was 458 per 100,000 in 2015. In the view of most public officials, jails and prisons are a necessary evil.
“I wish we didn’t have to have jails, but as long as there are human beings, we’re going to have them,” said Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington. “Not everybody’s going to follow the law, we’re adequately prepared, we have plenty of room and we’re set for the future.... And I don’t have apologies for what we do.”
Whittington runs a profitable three-jail system that has a minimum, medium and maximum-security facility. In 2014, Bossier Parish received $8 million for housing state prisoners and $700,000 for holding federal prisoners.
“Sheriffs build prisons, and they make money off of those prisons by housing state prisoners, which is good, it can do more for its citizens, it creates jobs, but because those prisons need to make a profit, we have to put more people in there,” stated Paul Carmouche, who served as a Caddo Parish District Attorney for 30 years before becoming a defense attorney.
“The amount of money that the state spends to keep people in jail is significant. The debate is, well, it’s worth it because it keeps us all safe,” said career defense attorney Peter Flowers. “Well, I understand that, and I think to some, when it does keep us all safe, that’s a good thing. But what happened is there’s a lot of people being kept in jail that pose no danger to us and the reason for that, in my mind, it’s just easier that way.”
The “lock-em-up” attitude that prevailed in the 80s and 90s – and to some extent still prevails today – spawned mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing and three-strikes laws that removed a judge’s sentencing discretion.
“You have a burglar that’s a bad person that threatened people and maybe could’ve harmed people, and then there’s a youngster that goes into a house to get something,” said Carmouche. “And they’re both getting the same sentences, so that took away the judge’s ability to look at each defendant on his or her own and make a determination on what the proper sentence was ... and it took away from the DA’s ability to properly charge.”
Speaking to the question of whether Louisiana prisons are holding individuals who pose an actual threat to society, a report issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts in August 2016, produced in cooperation with the Louisiana legislature, reported that more than half of newly-sentenced prisoners in the state’s penal system were convicted of drug possession. Further, the report found that the 10 most common crimes resulting in incarceration were for non-violent offenses.
Change in Louisiana’s criminal justice system has been slow. Politicians who advocate reforms are labeled as being “soft on crime,” and when officials opt to close prisons, which are typically situated in economically distressed areas, local communities often object to protect the jobs and financial benefits the facilities provide. Further, the private prison industry is firmly entrenched in Louisiana; one company, LaSalle Corrections, operates eight facilities in the state. While the business of incarceration has become ingrained in our nation’s political and economic systems, that does not necessarily translate to an increase in public safety.
“Just because you have more people in jail, doesn’t mean you’re catching more people,” said Flowers. “It just means you’re keeping more of the people you catch in jail.”
Nevertheless, suggestions of reform have been made. In September 2016, Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl G. Purpera issued a report indicating the state could save $70 million by diverting roughly 9,000 prisoners being held on simple drug possession charges to alternate programs, such as drug courts and substance abuse treatment.
In order to save the state revenue moving forward, Purpera also recommended legislative changes to mandatory minimum laws, allowing for greater judicial and prosecutorial discretion so that drug offenders can be placed on probation or receive other alternative sentences. Reform of mandatory minimums, the Legislative Auditor said, may save the state as much as $100 million.
However, in his report, Purpera also noted that the road to criminal justice reform presents some challenges, in that Louisiana’s correctional infrastructure, in large part, does not currently support options such as community treatment, re-entry programs, drug courts and other diversionary alternatives to incarceration.
The state’s prison system currently houses around 36,000 prisoners; in March 2016, Governor Bel Edwards said reducing Louisiana’s prison population was a priority and he planned to present legislation during the 2017 session to accomplish that goal.
“We can substantially reduce the incarceration rate here while improving public safety,” he stated. “I believe we have a lot of work to do.”
Sources: www.ktbs.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.theadvocate.com, www.bjs.gov
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