Conservatives in other states have blazed a trail, it is time to follow their lead
Louisiana has the nation’s highest rate of incarceration. There are a number of reasons for the dramatic growth of our prison population over the past two decades, but one important factor is the rise of determinate sentencing laws. This has caused a growing number of nonviolent offenders to serve long prison terms without an opportunity to be considered for parole. In many cases, these offenders serve time in prisons where the lack of training and educational options increases the likelihood that they will be released without any of the skills needed to play a productive role in society.
This is costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in increased corrections expenditures, to say nothing of the incalculable social costs. The fact that so many young men and women are behind bars also exacerbates the state’s growing labor shortage.
While many other states saw increased incarceration rates over this time period, legislators around the country have been taking steps to reduce prison populations without compromising public safety. Notably, conservative states like Texas and Georgia have begun to steer nonviolent offenders away from prison, emphasize rehabilitation over jail time, and reduce penalties for many drug and property crimes. The Right on Crime project has worked to advance sensible reforms throughout the states and is supported by leaders across the center-right spectrum.
These reforms are receiving broad support across the nation. The business community is playing an increasingly important role in this trend, and a statewide consortium of business, religious and civic organizations are now committed to developing a more just and sustainable criminal justice system here in Louisiana.
The Smart on Crime campaign seeks to apply relevant lessons from other states to Louisiana. Reforms that lead to fewer nonviolent offenders being incarcerated will save the state millions of dollars and, if a portion of that savings is invested in alternatives to incarceration, increase the likelihood that ex-offenders can successfully rejoin society. Listed below are bills that have been filed in the state legislature that would advance these goals and therefore improve public safety in Louisiana:
OPENING DOORS TO THE WORKFORCE
1. Provisional Occupational Licenses: HB911 (Leger) allows certain ex-offenders to obtain a provisional, or probationary, occupational license if they are otherwise qualified. This bill will make it easier for qualified ex-offenders to rejoin the workforce.
2. Civil Liability Protection: SB339 (Donahue)/HB505 (Dixon) would immunize employers who hire ex-offenders without a violent or sex offense from being sued on that basis alone. This will increase the likelihood that employers will consider hiring qualified ex-offenders.
EXPANDING ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION
3. Veteran’s Courts Program: SB532 (E. Guillory) authorizes courts to create specialized Veteran’s Treatment Court Programs throughout Louisiana to assist veterans overcoming drug and substance abuse issues and any mental health issues contributing to involvement with the criminal justice system. The court programs will operate like current drug court programs throughout the state but will function in a manner specifically tailored for veterans. These specialized courts can tap into available federal resources and will help veterans access federal veteran programs and services offered for reintegration and rehabilitation.
4. Community-Based Corrections: HB914 (Leger) creates the Community Corrections Performance Incentive Act and applies cost savings from reduced incarceration costs to building up community-based corrections. This bill provides for an annual calculation of savings from reduced recidivism and applies a portion of these savings to implementing practices that are demonstrated to further reduce recidivism.
SENSIBLE GUIDELINES FOR PAROLE ELIGIBILITY
5. Cleansing Period: SB383 (LaFleur/Mills) provides that an offense will not be counted as a second or subsequent offense if more than ten years have lapsed since expiration of maximum sentence for prior conviction. This would apply only to non-violent and non-sex offenses, and would result in a greater number of non-violent offenders being eligible for parole consideration.
6. Parole Eligibility for Older, Non-Violent Inmates: HB329 (Lopinto) makes parole eligibility available to non-violent offenders serving life sentences pursuant to habitual offender law, who are at least 50 years of age, if they have met a list of specified conditions. These include, but are not limited to, having served at least fifteen years of imprisonment in actual custody, no disciplinary offenses in past twelve months, and completing relevant treatment/counseling.
7. Medical Parole: HB210 (Jefferson) would amend current law to expand eligibility for medical parole. The proposed reforms would enable the Department of Corrections to more efficiently and preemptively utilize the Medical Parole Procedure, further tap into existing cost-effective treatment alternatives to offset the medical cost of these infirm inmates, and curb DOC’s increasing need to dedicate additional wings at Correctional institutes specifically to infirm inmates.
SMARTER SENTENCING FOR NON-VIOLENT OFFENDERS
8. Marijuana Possession: SB323 (Morrell/Adley) provides that simple possession of marijuana would be a misdemeanor upon second and subsequent conviction, rather than enhanced to a felony grade offense with increasing penalties. The state would save millions of dollars in supervision and incarceration costs by making this change. This would not affect possession with intent to distribute, cultivation, or distribution.
9. Safety Valve: HB745 (Moreno) would give the judge discretion in certain non-violent/non-sex cases to depart from mandatory minimum sentences. This would generally impact sentences for drug offenses. This legislation is based upon a statute passed and successfully implemented in Georgia.
Conservatives understand that public safety is “job one” for government, and Republicans have benefited politically from being the tough on crime party. The success of leaders like Rudy Giuliani, who helped improve public safety by supporting strong and effective law enforcement, is something to be embraced.
But locking nonviolent offenders away for inordinate periods of time and making no attempt to reform or rehabilitate them is not tough; it is foolish, unjust and fiscally unsustainable.
While lawbreakers should be punished, the evidence from states like Texas demonstrates that there is a path forward that is fair to victims, offenders and taxpayers. Louisiana conservatives should make this a priority for the 2014 legislative session and beyond.