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Monday, Oct. 23, 2017

BREAK FOR PRISONERS

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Legislative initiative takes effect Nov. 1

Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the country with 816 people in prison for every 100,000 residents. With that dubious distinction, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and a group of bipartisan state legislators decided to do something about it. The result was the Louisiana Criminal Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

You probably heard about it because it’s been in the news recently. Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator held a press conference to criticize the program. But he got into hot water when he said, "In addition to the bad ones, they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in our kitchen, to do all that where we save money. They’re gonna let them out."

Well, that little comment got the sheriff a lot of attention. The ACLU condemned Prator’s statement saying, "The criminal justice system is supposed to be about keeping communities safe. Jails are not supposed to incarcerate people just because they need work done – that is slavery." The story was picked up by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and social media. Some Louisiana legislators also offered some opinions about Prator’s comments.

In view of the controversy that has developed, I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look. So just what is the Louisiana Criminal Justice Reinvestment Initiative? A bipartisan task force, whose membership included law enforcement, legislators, members of the state judiciary, as well as the business community, issued a report following the most in-depth study of Louisiana’s criminal justice system. The report made recommendations for much-needed legislative solutions.

The study spawned 10 bills and got the governor involved in leading a bipartisan effort to do something about the state’s prison situation. The 10 bills passed the Louisiana Legislature this year, including seven bills by Republican legislators, emphasizing the broad, bipartisan support for the package. The bills were supported by the conservative Louisiana Family Forum, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and the District Attorneys Association. Polls showed that 68 percent of Louisianans support bipartisan criminal justice reform. Not surprisingly, the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association opposed the bills.

The bills made their way through the legislative process.

The votes in the House and Senate were bipartisan and not particularly close. On June 15, Gov. Edwards signed into law the most comprehensive criminal justice reform in the state’s history. The bipartisan package of 10 bills primarily focused on non-violent, non-sex offenders and is designed to steer less serious offenders away from prison, strengthen alternatives to imprisonment, reduce prison terms for those who can be safety supervised in the community, and remove barriers to successful reentry.

The reforms should allow Louisiana to shed its status as the state with the nation’s highest imprisonment rate by the end of 2018, and it could drop several spots. The state projects that the measures will reduce the prison and community supervision populations by 10 and 12 percent, respectively, over 10 years and save the state $262 million. Some of those savings, as much as $184 million, will be invested in local programs to reduce recidivism and in services for crime victims.

The Louisiana Criminal Justice Reinvestment Initiative goes into effect on Nov. 1. Each prisoner released will undergo extreme oversight and careful review of the offender’s individual record. Those released early will only include non-violent offenders. Those responsible for the program are optimistic that it will produce positive results and lower the prison population.

Other states have been successful with similar programs. In Texas, since prison reforms were instituted in 2007, the imprisonment rate is down 16 percent, and crime is down 30 percent. In South Carolina since its 2010 reforms, its imprisonment rate is down 16 percent, and crime is down 16 percent. North Carolina, which instituted reforms in 2011, has seen its imprisonment rate drop 3 percent, and crime is down 12 percent. And in Georgia, since its 2012 reforms, the imprisonment rate is down 7 percent, and crime is down 11 percent.

It’s no secret that law enforcement is not crazy about this package of prison reforms. As I mentioned, the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association refused to endorse the legislation. Prator is not alone in his criticism. He said, "My many years of public service prove beyond any doubt that I view all people equally. To say or imply any differently is untruthful." Other law enforcement agencies in Northwest Louisiana and around the state have expressed similar concerns as those voiced by Prator. But it’s a done deal, and sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel will have to live with it. Only time will tell how successful this new program will be. But it seems to be a good start toward reducing the prison population in Louisiana.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.
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