This past legislative session, Prison Fellowship and the Louisiana Family Forum were honored to support Louisiana’s comprehensive criminal justice reforms. After years of debate, the Pelican State finally moved beyond platitudes about being “tough on crime” and decided it was time to get smart on rehabilitation.
The breakthrough came when stakeholders unpacked the numbers and spent hundreds of hours researching data on policy, proportional sentencing and safe methods of reserving incarceration for more dangerous crimes.
Out of this study came 21 recommendations, 10 of which the legislature, district attorneys the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and the Louisiana Family Forum collaborated on. These recommendations were then passed with the assistance of dozens of stakeholders to create a sensible reform package that would provide a return on taxpayers’ investment.
Through these changes, reformers sought to safely reduce the expensive population of the prisons, particularly in cases of people convicted of nonviolent, non-sex related offenses. The majority of money saved would be reinvested in time-tested, restorative programs that train people for life outside of prison and successful reintegration into their families and communities. When fully implemented, these reforms promise to improve Louisiana’s grim recidivism and re-incarceration rates.
Recently, several prisoners had their sentences reduced, on average by two months because, under the reform, they qualified for shortened sentences because of good time served. Opponents of the reform made sensational claims that those released would endanger public safety. In fact, “those slated for release were ‘exclusively’ convicted of non-violent, non-sex offenses.”
Claims of a great threat to public safety, we believe, have been exaggerated. Public safety is in no greater jeopardy today than it was before these individuals were released.
For the good of taxpayers, families and crime victims, we should do what we promised and give these reforms a chance. Instead of raising false alarms, it would be more productive for all parties to focus on implementing the reforms and proactively addressing any unintended gaps through “clean-up” legislation, rather than undermining reforms before they have had time to succeed.
Of course, violent crime is a legitimate concern, and preventing violence merits a diligent, evidence-based approach. We must remember that the reforms are limited to non-violent and non-sex offenses.
There is no denying how troubling it is to see daily homicides in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The residents of these two metropolitan areas are justified in insisting that public officials and law enforcement provide a strategy which targets areas most affected by violent crime. Louisiana deserves communities where all families remain safe.
Louisianans need positive, community-based solutions that recognize the dignity and value of each individual, while implementing smart crime-prevention efforts. The $262 million in projected savings over 10 years from justice reinvestment reforms must be committed to fully staff law enforcement's local efforts, while also assisting D.A.s and judges in healing the damage caused to crime victims via restitution. The public should also be educated on the promise of effective specialty courts, like Jefferson Parish’s Reentry Court program at Angola, under Judge Scott Schlegel.
The time for simply cursing the darkness, or one another, is over. It’s time to introduce the light in Louisiana corrections. Crime prevention and smart sentencing policies will work as we honor valid concerns, work together to remedy unintended gaps and allow the reforms time to demonstrate effectiveness.
Building on the spirit of cooperation which allowed this diverse coalition to pass a comprehensive reform, let’s not allow sensational rhetoric to detour us from the course we have selected for the Pelican State: building a smarter system that respects the dignity and value of each person impacted by crime and incarceration, effectively stewards taxpayer money, and keeps our communities safe.