How Long is Too Long, and Is There a Better Way?
Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, largely due to the state’s history of using long prison sentences. According to data from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, as of January 2022, there were approximately 32,000 people in Louisiana prisons and jails. Of those, about 18,000 were serving sentences of 10 years or more, and more than 8,000 were serving sentences of 20 years or more. Additionally, there are approximately 4,300 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
The use of long prison sentences in Louisiana has had a significant impact on the state’s budget. In fiscal year 2022, the state spent nearly $1 billion on incarceration, with an average annual cost of more than $24,000 per inmate. This is a significant financial burden on taxpayers, particularly given the lack of evidence that long prison sentences effectively deter crime.
In light of these statistics, the Council on Criminal Justice, a non-partisan, non-profit national organization, recently released a report with recommendations on prison sentences that are particularly relevant to Louisiana. By adopting a more balanced and evidence-based approach to sentencing, the state could reduce its incarceration rate, save taxpayer money, and most importantly, promote safer communities.
One of the main findings of the report is that long prison sentences are not always effective in reducing crime or enhancing public safety. In fact, many studies have shown that lengthy sentences can have negative effects, such as increased recidivism rates, increased costs to taxpayers, and negative impacts on families and communities. Long sentences often do not consider the individual circumstances of the offender, such as their mental health or history of trauma, which can exacerbate the negative effects of imprisonment.
The Council on Criminal Justice offered 14 recommendations to promote more effective sentencing practices, including victim and survivor services, behavioral health, evidence-based programs to encourage rehabilitation and reduce recidivism and ensuring that sentencing is based on the individual’s risk level.
One of the key recommendations is to limit the use of mandatory minimum sentences, which take discretion away from judges and can result in excessively harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses. The Council suggests that mandatory minimums should only be used for the most serious offenses, and that judges should have more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for other crimes.
Another recommendation is to expand the use of alternatives to incarceration, such as community supervision, treatment programs, and restorative justice practices. These alternatives can be more effective in reducing recidivism and promoting rehabilitation, while also reducing the costs and negative impacts of incarceration. In addition, the Council recommends that sentencing guidelines should take into account the individual circumstances of the offender, such as their risk of reoffending and their potential for rehabilitation.
Louisiana has already set itself on the path towards implementing some of these recommendations. With the reforms that were made in 2017, much emphasis was placed on offender rehabilitation, services to victims, and reducing sentence length through the use of good time calculations post sentencing. There is still plenty of work to be done, and lawmakers are right to want to be involved and have oversight over the implementation of those changes. One area they should pay particular attention to is addressing offenders’ behavioral and mental health needs, which if not addressed, will likely contribute to even more criminal behavior.
By adopting these evidence-based reforms, lawmakers can promote a criminal justice system that is effective in reducing recidivism and increasing public safety for Louisiana’s communities.
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