Clean Sweep for Prison Reforms, But as Weakened Versions
An exclusive interview with Dana Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
BATON ROUGE, La. – The efforts of Louisiana’s Sentencing Commission and its many collaborators appear to have been fruitful this session. All five of the Commission’s legislative recommendations have passed out of the legislature, and Governor Jindal has already signed one with the rest likely to follow soon.
However, three of the bills received amendments during the legislative process, and two of these were the ones likely to have had the largest impact on Louisiana’s prison population.
To provide context and offer an informed perspective on what the outcome means for Louisianians, I interviewed Dana Kaplan, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.* Click below to listen—11 minutes.[audio:http://bit.ly/mbDCib]
While not formally involved, Kaplan says JJPL was highly supportive and endorsed all of the proposals.
“There is broad recognition that it was past time for all of us in the state of Louisiana to take a second look at our criminal justice policies and make some specific recommendations about how we could save the state needless money in taxpayer dollars.”
The Sentencing Commission included research input from the Vera Institute and the Pew Center on the States, so this brought national attention to Louisiana’s immense incarceration problem. One in 55 Louisianians is in prison, around 2 percent of the population, which is the highest rate in the United States and the world, and that has almost tripled since the early 1980s.
The least controversial of the Sentencing Commission’s five bills received no amendments, HB 415 and SB 202, and HB106 received only a slight amendment.
The remaining two, HB 414 and HB 416, sought to find ways to release non-violent offenders sooner, since they make up 82 percent of those admitted to Louisiana’s prisons. In their original form, though, the Governor’s Office, the Sheriffs’ Association, and the District Attorney Association withheld support for them. That was despite an endorsement from the RightOnCrime initiative, which seeks to bring conservatives on board with tested reform measures. The Baton Rouge Advocate, in a favorable editorial, also noted the Pelican Institute as a key supporter from the conservative side.
“I do think it was a little bit troubling that some of the concerns expressed by the sheriffs in the end had the impact of preventing the full realization of some of the legislative reforms,” Kaplan said. She also says these amendments will negate the potential $253 million saving over the next decade.
HB 416, for example, slightly reduces the time required for parole consideration for non-violent, non-sex offenders, but an amendment limited that to only first time offenders. HB 414 consolidates rewards for compliance with prison rules and anti-recidivism programs, but an amendment essentially divided its generosity in half.
Rep. Joe Lopinto (R-Metairie), who sponsored three of the bills, including the most controversial, acknowledges they were watered down.
“But we’ve taken step forward,” he said, “a baby step, but an important step and the issue will be back next year.”
The following organizations endorsed all five of the original bills:
- Blueprint Louisiana
- The Committee of 100
- The First United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge
- The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
- The Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation
- The Pelican Institute for Public Policy
- The Pew Center on the States
- Prison Fellowship
- The Right on Crime Coalition
- The Vera Institute of Justice
*JJPL’s mission is to “transform the juvenile justice system into one that builds on the strengths of young people, families and communities to ensure children are given the greatest opportunities to grow and thrive.” They promote alternatives to incarceration, particularly for non-violent offenses.
Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and editor of The Pelican Post. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and one can follow him on twitter.