The Conservative Case for Sentencing Reform in Louisiana
This article, written by Right on Crime signatory David Keene, originally appeared in The Times-Picayune on May 2, 2017.
As is well known by now to anyone paying attention, Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest in the nation. One of the reasons for this dubious honor is the state’s high rate of incarceration of nonviolent, drug-related offenders. That is the conclusion of a report released last month by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The bipartisan commission was created by the Legislature in 2015, and spent the last year studying Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Conservatives should be alarmed by the commission’s findings, but, more importantly, conservatives should support its proposed solutions.
Among the task force’s troubling findings: Louisiana’s prisons are among the most populated in the country; the state spends two-thirds of a billion dollars annually on corrections, and its recidivism rates remain stubbornly high. Further, the task force found Louisiana sends people to prison for nonviolent offenses at a rate twice as high as South Carolina and three times as high as Florida, despite nearly identical crime rates. Filling prisons with nonviolent offenders spreads thin valuable state resources that could be used to reduce inmate recidivism and more effectively target legitimate threats to public safety.
Thankfully, the task force provided strong recommendations to solve many of the problems with Louisiana’s criminal justice system. The task force’s reform will improve public safety by utilizing valuable law enforcement resources effectively and efficiently. These recommendations are consistent with conservative principles — including public safety, respect for law enforcement and prudent use of tax dollars — and would have an immediate positive impact on Louisiana’s justice system.
One of the task force’s recommendations, which has already been introduced in the Legislature, would restructure Louisiana’s felony system and reclassify how Louisiana holds nonviolent offenders accountable. The bill, Senate Bill 220, also would consolidate Louisiana’s criminal code, which currently includes more than 600 confusing, contradictory and duplicative classifications, into six felony classes. Along with reclassification, the bill would eliminate costly and ineffective mandatory minimums for many nonviolent offenders.
Along with many of my fellow conservatives, I supported the expansion of mandatory minimums years ago as a way to send a message to those who choose to break the law. However, I have come to recognize that, like many other “one-size-fits-all” policies, mandatory minimums have failed in practice. These laws remove independence and flexibility from sentencing courts. The result is injustice in individual cases — low-level offenders sentenced to prison terms intended for career criminals — and waste and inefficiency throughout the criminal justice system.
Mandatory minimums have been proven to be ineffective by study after study. These sentences fail to reduce recidivism for low-level offenders, and even yield higher rates of recidivism for other nonviolent offenders. The evidence is beyond dispute: mandatory minimums simply cannot pass the kind of cost-benefit analysis conservatives demand from public policy, and conservatives should champion their reform.
Louisiana is doing criminal justice reform the right way. The Justice Reinvestment Task Force package will guarantee that individuals who prey on the innocent will receive the tough sentences they deserve. At the same time, the sentencing reforms in the task force package will restore balance and flexibility to a system that has long lacked both. The savings realized from those reforms will free up resources to allow law enforcement greater opportunities to take down career criminals, violent offenders, and major drug dealers who plague the streets.
Senate President John Alario should be applauded for bringing forth this set of meaningful reforms. I encourage every conservative in Louisiana to join with him in support of the task force’s reform package.
David Keene is a former president of the National Rifle Association, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union and editorial page editor of The Washington Times.