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New sentencing study released in Louisiana

| October 29, 2013

Today, the Reason Foundation, in conjunction with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, has announced the release of “Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime:  An Argument for Reforming Louisiana’s Determinate Sentencing Laws.”  The paper, authored by Lauren Galik and Julian Morris of the Reason Foundation, brings to light Louisiana’s outmoded overreliance on mandatory minimum sentences as a means of criminal deterrence.

Dismayed by the lack of severity of felony sentences and the swiftness with which they were applied, lawmakers in Louisiana passed a swath of determinate sentencing laws ranging from mandatory minimum legislation to habitual offender laws.  The former statutorily imposes a “floor” – a minimum length of time a sentence must contain upon the finding of guilt for a specific crime.  The latter requires the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence based on how many felony re-offenses the individual has been found to have committed, the most notorious of which being “Three Strikes” laws.

While superficially an effective deterrent to criminal behavior, determinate sentencing laws wrest control of individual case processing and adjudication from the trained professionals of the criminal justice system and grant it to the legislature.  This rote process limits the sentencing options available to the court and fails to take into account individual variation between cases.  As such studies have shown that, while harsher sentences are more frequently given and prison populations swell under determinate sentencing schemes, there is no positive effect on public safety for the accompanying increase in cost.

Louisiana has shown the willingness to make sentencing reform a priority.  Over the past two years, Louisiana lawmakers passed bills allowing courts to waive mandatory minimum requirements in certain situations, expanding eligibility for parole for nonviolent offenders, and incentivized further use of drug treatment and rehabilitation/vocational programs.  With the coming interest this report is likely to generate, we eagerly look forward to the next wave of common sense criminal justice reforms for the state.

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DEREK M. COHEN is Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Right on Crime campaign. Cohen graduated with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, where he is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation on the long-term costs and outcomes associated with correctional programming.  His academic work can be found in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology and The Oxford Handbook on Police and Policing, and has scholarly articles currently under review.  He has presented several papers to the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the American Evaluation Association on the implementation and outcomes of various criminal justice policy issues. Prior to joining the Foundation, Cohen was a research associate with University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science.  He also taught classes in statistics, research methods, criminal procedure, and corrections.

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