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How to Reverse Incarceration in Louisiana: Thirteen Steps to Stop Being First in Being Last

Louisiana was recently named “Worst State” in the nation, again.  One of the reasons was the state’s 50th ranking in crime and corrections.   Being the incarceration capital of the county is obviously not helping our reputation.

Here are a dozen plus ways for Louisiana to stop jailing many more of its citizens than Iran or China.

One.  Decriminalize victimless crimes – don’t arrest people for stupid non-violent crimes in the first place.

Two.  Stop racial profiling.  African American people are two to three times as likely to be arrested as whites.  Even though marijuana use is roughly similar in all communities, Blacks are much more likely than whites to be arrested and convicted of marijuana crimes.  Overall, African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated at rates two to four times higher than their population.   Black prisoners make up 91 percent of the people sentenced to life without parole for non-violent offenses and are 23 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for a non-violent crime.

Three.  Let people out of jail while they are waiting for trial unless they are a danger to society or a flight risk and don’t put people in jail if they are too poor to pay a fine.  As the Civil Rights Corps has documented, people held in jail awaiting trial, or sent to jail if they are too poor to pay court fines and fees lose their jobs, kids, apartments and their ability to support themselves.

Four.  Expand pre-trial diversion for non-violent offenders and keep them out of the criminal legal system as the American Bar Association suggests.

Five.  Prohibit local sheriffs from holding arrested or convicted prisoners from outside their parish, thus removing the cash incentives for keeping high numbers of people in jail.

Six. Give equal resources to public defenders and prosecutors.  Nationwide, public defense gets less than half the amount given to prosecutors.   When people get constitutional defense they usually are less likely to be convicted and if convicted receive less harsh sentences.

Seven.  Like the other 48 states, require Louisiana juries to come to unanimous decisions.   Non-unanimous juries allow many more people to be convicted and they arise from a serious racist history.

Eight.  Reform sentencing laws.  The Louisiana Pelican Institute for Public Policy called for eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses as other states have already done.  This could save the state $100 million.  Prohibit the use of habitual offender laws against non-violent offenders as suggested by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

Nine.  Offer rehabilitation programs inside every jail and allow every prisoner to participate.

Ten.  Let older prisoners out of jail, they are much less likely to commit crimes.  The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections reported there are 7,492 prisoners in Louisiana who are already over the age of 50.

Eleven.  Invest in re-entry release support programs for every person released from prison.  These programs save money, reduce the number of people returning to jail and help people become self-sufficient members of society.

Twelve.  Make it easier to expunge criminal convictions so people who made mistakes can start rebuilding their lives.

Thirteen.  Return the maximum prison sentence in Louisiana to 10 years and 6 months if the prisoner maintains a good conduct record.  Louisiana has 4,860 offenders incarcerated for life, the highest rate in the nation.  Louisiana also has the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole for non-violent offenses.

Why don’t legislators take these steps?   Many say they fear voters might think they are soft on crime.  As international politician Jean-Claude Juncker said wisely “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

But if Louisiana would take even half of these steps, maybe we wouldn’t always be first in being last.

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Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

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