For decades, Louisiana has had one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, while New Orleans—and more recently, Baton Rouge—are both near the top of the list when it comes to cities with the highest crime. While previous criminal justice reform efforts have fallen flat and not made their way through the legislature, it appears that the Pelican State is finally ready to turn a corner and implement conservative, data-driven, proven policies to improve public safety while lowering their incarceration rate.
In June 2016, in the midst of a marathon Legislative Session grappling with cuts necessary to balance the state budget, the inaugural meeting of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force took place. The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, as created by HCR 82 of the 2015 Legislative session, is a coalition whose members include judges, legislators, a sheriff, a prosecutor, a religious leader and other criminal justice and corrections professionals. The group is charged with developing recommendations to reduce the prison population, maintain/improve public safety, such as revisions to pretrial procedures, sentencing rules, and evidence-based investment in programs that lessen recidivism.
A key player working with the Task Force is the Pew Charitable Trust, which includes a team of seven attorneys, criminologists and data analysts who travel to Louisiana every two weeks from Washington, D.C., where the organization’s Public Safety Performance Project is headquartered. The end-game is to prepare a Legislative package for the 2017 session that will bring about substantive systemic reform.
Governor Edwards, following through on promises he made during his election campaign, endorsed the idea of making substantive reforms across the criminal justice system with the goal of changing Louisiana’s status as the most incarcerating state in the nation
“You will never convince me that the people of Louisiana are innately more sinister or criminal than elsewhere. So what are we doing?” Edwards asserts that a “lock ’em up” culture has failed to reduce crime even as the state’s incarceration rate has shot up 35 percent over the past 20 years — currently at 816 per 100,000 people, double the national average. This costs the state $600 million to $700 million each year. One of the reasons Governor Edwards cites as why the time is right for such reform is the leadership of long time Secretary of Corrections, James LeBlanc. LeBlanc, who was retained by Edwards under his administration, has served as Corrections Secretary for the past two administrations, and has been responsible for the implementation of evidence-based reentry programs starting as far back as 2004.
The legislation establishing the Task Force was a joint effort of both sides of the legislative aisle. Bi-partisan support for this effort is wide-spread, including the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association the Louisiana Public Defender Board and a number of non-profits focused on criminal justice reform.
Right on Crime Signatory Kevin Kane of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, states, “The formation of the Task Force shows that Louisiana is getting serious about criminal justice reform. Their recommendations will be critical to transforming our prison system.”
The continued budget deficits, which are growing everyday as a result of the recent historic flooding in 2016 of the northern and southern parts of the state, make the need for finding cost-effective ways to enhance public safety in Louisiana even more pressing than ever before.
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