So the first question we ask ourselves is very simple, what is the main purpose of the prison system? That can be broken down in several answers. If you are convicted of a crime and the judge sentences you to more than a year in custody, you will be serving your “debt to society” in a prison. The objectives for the prison system are: 1) Punishment for the crime(s) committed; 2) Removal of the individual from society to protect the public; 3) Deterrence for individuals from committing the same crime and; 4) Rehabilitation. So why are the prisons pack? Here, in Louisiana the question has been recently asked as to why the State leads the nation with over 38,000 inmates incarcerated?
Back in March, as the legislative session began to approach, Governor John Bell Edwards identified a plan to reduce Louisiana’s prison population and save the state $262 million over the next decade based on the recommendation of Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The task force came up with a plan to reduce the prison population and recidivism in Louisiana. That plan included several bills that would overhaul the criminal justice system within the state. As of June 15, Governor Edwards had signed the ten bills that will help the state shed its title as the “world’s incarceration capitol.”
The newly signed laws will reduce mandatory minimums, cut sentences and give certain inmates access to parole eligibility much sooner. The laws also creates a medical furlough program, which allows the sickest inmates to temporarily receive treatment off site, and be eligible for Medicaid, which saves the state money on medical costs. The package also overhauls drug sentencing, allowing lighter sentences based on the weight of the drugs sold or obtained, and restructures the state's many inconsistent theft penalties. Lastly, Senate Bill 16, introduced by Sen. Dan Claitor, will limit how often juvenile offenders can receive life without parole sentences.
Why can this be considered a small victory moving forward? Just last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (President Trump’s Justice Department) issued a memo calling on federal prosecutors to seek maximum sentences, even for low-level drug offenders. More inmates in Louisiana are serving time for drug possession than any other crime according to the ACLU. In the same report, in 2010, African Americans made up 64 percent of marijuana possession arrests in Louisiana—despite making up just 32 percent of the state population. The state legislature now sees that Louisiana's "tough-on-crime" mentality has not been effective.
Approximately 0.81 percent of Louisiana's population is incarcerated, almost double the national average. It should be noted Louisiana and Florida have similar crime rates, but Louisiana incarcerates people for non-violent offenses at nearly three times the rate of Florida.
Louisiana is taking a hard look at its criminal justice system and the state is seeing that the current formula is not working effectively. It will take time for the state to go back to the original four objectives of prison but for now, supporters of criminal justice reform can take a small victory lap as the “world’s incarceration capitol” recognizes that changes need to be made to the system.
Johnny King is the current Attorney General for SWBLSA and a current 3L at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, LA. If you have any comments or would like to make a suggestion on topics you would like to see explored, he can reached at SWBLSA.AG@nblsa.org.