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Scott Peyton | February 12, 2020
In 2017, the Louisiana Legislature, with overwhelming bipartisan support, passed ten reforms (sponsored by six republicans, two democrats, and one independent) supported by data and aimed at safely reducing Louisiana’s overreliance on incarceration, effectively addressing drivers to incarceration, and lowering recidivism. Similar reforms had previously been enacted in Texas, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina, and North Carolina, with successful results achieved in terms of both cost savings and public safety. As conservatives, we appreciate that reforms should be designed to hold our criminal justice system to the same level of accountability and transparency as any other government agency or program to ensure taxpayers receive the outcomes they are paying for. This is why reform is a conservative ideal.
Recently, I attended a local reentry meeting at the 27th Judicial District Court (JDC) Drug Court in Opelousas, Louisiana. Over thirty-five people, including the assistant secretary of the Department of Corrections, probation and parole officers, a district court judge, St. Landry Parish District Attorney’s Office, St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, and numerous non-profit agencies, discussed collaborative efforts to reduce recidivism in our rural communities. These folks are the real “boots on the ground” people of reentry! During the meeting, I was struck by the irony of a letter to the editor that I read in the American that “addicts and people committing crimes because of addiction do not just stop this behavior because of shortened jail sentences.” I would argue that the last 10 years of data tells us that addiction-related behavior is not resolved via an overreliance on incarceration. We cannot simply incarcerate our way out of an addiction crisis. According to a 2018 study conducted by Pew Trusts, “putting more drug-law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated enormous costs for taxpayers, but it has not yielded a convincing public safety return on those investments.”
Thus far, the 2017 criminal justice reforms have returned $1.4 million, which the Louisiana Supreme Court reinvested by creating reentry courts and the expansion of existing reentry courts, mental health courts, veterans courts, and drug courts throughout the state. Drug courts are effective alternatives to incarceration and that’s exactly why the money saved from lowering the incarceration rate is best spent through reinvestment into these courts. No evidence indicates that the 2017 reforms have caused “very negative long-term” effects on drug or specialty courts. In fact, these concerns are addressed through the allocation of this additional funding. According to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Annual Reports for 2017 and 2018, there has only been a 2.3 percent reduction in participants served. During this time period, drug court recidivism rates dropped by 1.5 percent. There is no data to suggest a reduction in participants or recidivism is a result of the reforms.
During my 10 years as a probation and parole officer, I confronted first-hand the challenges of reentry. Prior to these reforms, probationers often chose prison over drug court. Why? Because drug courts are not easy. The demands of the drug court program require extensive supervision. Drug courts are effective because the process involves careful screening of potential participants to weed out those who do not qualify.
In the last 14 months, I have traveled the great state of Louisiana and witnessed the diligence of folks committed to the daily work of supporting the transition of those reentering society. Nonprofits, such as Goodwill Industries, the United Way, along with the Division of Probation and Parole, and Louisiana Workforce Agency—to name a few—have proven invaluable. The American Press letter to the editor states that the reforms were putting the “cart before the horse.” To the contrary. Louisiana finally removed the blinders, adopting conservative, evidence-based reforms, so that our citizens receive the public safety outcomes they deserve.
Louisiana is on track to reverse course and finally address decades of poor decisions regarding our criminal justice system. We must continue to move forward if we are to further improve public safety and create a reentry-ready Louisiana. Fighting crime by restoring victims, reforming offenders, and saving taxpayer dollars is right on crime.