In 2017, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) reforms were passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in the Louisiana Legislature and signed into law by Governor Edwards. Over a year and a half later, a 2019 Louisiana Survey sponsored by Reilly Center for Media and Public affairs at LSU shows that 70% of Louisianans are in support of the 2017 reforms and 88% are in support of more alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment or rehabilitation programs.
Interestingly, this study also found that 54% of Louisianans do not think the criminal justice system is fair, nor do they feel it is creating safer communities. The residents of Louisiana are in favor of the 2017 reforms and they also recognize that more reform is needed to create safer communities and a criminal justice system that is fair for all citizens. 2017 was a historic year when Louisiana began to shift away from policies that made them the highest incarcerator by rate in the country and Louisianans are looking for a continuation of these changes in areas that were left unaddressed in 2017.
Several glaring problems remain in the Louisiana criminal justice that should be tackled in the coming legislative sessions. For example, unnecessarily keeping people in jail, who pose little risk to public safety, simply because they can’t afford the bail amount. There are over 12,000 people in our local jails who have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. Many of those individuals should be detained pre-trial because they are a threat to public safety. However, many are not dangerous but can’t afford their release. For example, 15% of persons in jail can’t even afford a $500 bail amount.
Each day they spend in jail they lose jobs, friends and family. Studies show that persons may even be more likely to commit additional crimes after only spending a few days in jail. On the other side, dangerous defendants that can afford bail are able to stay on the streets. Reforms are needed to our current bail system that are based upon risk, rather than an individual’s ability to pay.
Additionally, Louisiana’s current charging and sentencing scheme creates unnecessarily harsh and costly punishments for nonviolent offenders. The “habitual offender” laws are oftentimes used as leverage to make plea deals with persons who have multiple, nonviolent felony offenses. These persons will serve significantly longer sentences for nonviolent crimes than their counterparts for the same fact patterns simply because a prosecutor has full discretion when to apply the “habitual offender” status.
These are non-violent crimes that could have allowed for probation or more appropriately time prison or jail sentence while better addressing the underlying cause of the criminal activity. It’s time to take a deeper, in-depth look into the use and abuse of the habitual offender laws and remove this remnant of the “tough on crime” philosophy that isn’t fair, effective or rehabilitative.
These are just a few areas of the current criminal justice system that aren’t fair. Based on this survey and others, it’s apparent that these issues aren’t a left or right issue and that there is more work to be done. We want a system that is fair for all citizens and a system that protects the public, restores victims, reforms offenders and saves taxpayer’s money.