Louisiana’s criminal justice reform efforts are being highlighted nationally in a special one-hour episode of Dateline NBC, as part of the “Justice for All” series reported by NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt.

The program was filmed over a period of months at Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly referred to as Angola, and Holt delves into the impact of the historic criminal justice reform legislation Gov. Edwards signed into law in 2017 and why this issue has garnered national attention.

“Reforming our prison system is something that has impacted all of us, and by working together in a bipartisan fashion, Louisiana has taken tremendous steps to become smarter on crime and improve public safety,” said Gov. Edwards. “Louisiana no longer has the highest imprisonment rate in the nation, and we have reinvested the millions of dollars saved by the reforms back into programs to help fortify victim services and reduce recidivism. Our evidence-based reforms are having a positive impact and the early results mirror the federal FIRST STEP initiative supported by President Trump. We must continue to move forward and realize the full potential of the reforms that we have seen in other southern conservative states like ours. I’m confident that we are headed in the right direction, and I was pleased to share how far we have come thanks to the commitment and hard work of many people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and experiences.” 

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) legislation done in conjunction with Pew Charitable Trusts applies to non-violent, non-sex offenses and centers around four specific goals: (1) Focus prison beds on serious threats to public safety; (2) Strengthen community supervision; (3) Clear away barriers to successful re-entry and; (4) Reinvest savings into recidivism reduction and crime victim support.

The JRI legislation mandates that 70% of the savings be reinvested into programs to reduce recidivism and support victims.

Results in Louisiana so far include: 

  • Reduced Prison Population: Louisiana’s total prison population has continued to decrease. It has fallen from a peak of 40,583 individuals in 2012 to 31,409 individuals as of the end of July 2019. As a result, Louisiana no longer has the highest imprisonment rate in the nation.
  • Sentence Length Down for Nonviolent Offenses: The State has seen significant decreases in sentence length for nonviolent offenses. Drug offenses have seen the largest decrease by the end of 2018 with a drop of 17%, followed by property offenses with an 8.3% decrease. The sentence reductions are based on research findings that longer sentences for nonviolent offenses do not make people less likely to re-offend or strengthen public safety. 
  • Reduction in Probation and Parole Population and Officers’ Average Caseloads: The State has seen a significant decrease in the total supervised population as well as the average caseload of Probation and Parole Officers; from 143 in 2015 to 118 currently.
  • Higher Savings to Taxpayers Than Originally Predicted: Savings for fiscal year 2018 totaled $12.2 million, doubling the original projections, while savings in the most recent fiscal year, 2019, totaled $17.8 million.

For nearly 20 years, Louisiana was known as the nation’s incarceration capital. The state’s mandatory sentencing laws and restrictive parole policies gave Louisiana the highest imprisonment rate in the country, nearly double the national average. Despite this approach, Louisiana was still among the top 10 states with the highest crime rate.  

In addition, by 2017 Louisiana was spending roughly $700 million annually on corrections – more than any other line item except education and health care. This was a huge burden on Louisana taxpayers without a good return on investment in terms of public safety: one in three released inmates were returning to prison within three years. Louisiana’s approach wasn’t working, and the state needed an enlightened, data-driven strategy to help it move forward.

Following lessons learned from successful criminal justice reform efforts in other southern states as well as the best available research, Louisiana developed a comprehensive, data-driven and bipartisan plan. This was designed to steer people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison, strengthen alternatives to incarceration, reduce prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community and remove barriers to successful reentry.

“Justice for All” began as an NBC Nightly News series, is now a network-wide initiative, following the years of work that Holt and Dateline producer Dan Slepian have been doing on criminal justice reform.

Dateline NBC’s “Life Inside” Airs Friday, Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC