It’s been five years since the ten bills, colloquially known as criminal justice reform (CJR), passed the legislature and were implemented with bipartisan support. These new laws created alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders and programs to make the transition from prison back into society (known as reentry) more successful. Both had the goal of reducing the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend (known as recidivism).

In short, the laws required Louisiana’s justice system to operate smarter, using evidence-based strategies and practices that have worked successfully in other states while freeing up resources to focus more on violent crime. Recently, PEW Charitable Trusts, a national think-tank that focuses on criminal justice reform, published an article highlighting the impact of this legislation. In fact, they assisted our lawmakers in building the architecture of the reforms, as they did in many states between 2015 and 2020.

The key goal of the legislation was to shift the focus of incarceration to violent offenders while offering rehabilitation programs to non-violent offenders. The composition of Louisiana’s prison population changed, where nearly half of the prison population contained non-violent offenders; today, only one-third of the population is non-violent. According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, the state now has more violent offenders in prison than prior to the reforms; however, it was the non-violent offenders that decreased the most.

Prior to the implementation of the reforms, Louisiana, with approximately 35,500 people incarcerated in the state’s prison system, had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. By the summer of 2022, that number had fallen by 24% to approximately 27,000, and Louisiana now has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. This is due to so many other states instituting various criminal justice reforms at the same time or right after Louisiana.

The reforms focused on a few key issues that had plagued the state’s criminal justice system for years. Laws were amended to reduce sentences for non-violent offenders and calculate “good time” at a faster rate for acceptable behavior and participation in counseling, addiction, and education programs. One portion of the package repurposed incarceration funding – funding that would no longer be needed given the reduction in incarceration rates – to expand counseling, addiction services, and educational programs proven to reduce recidivism in other states.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections reports that in 2016, the share of offenders who returned to prison within one year after release was 15%, and by 2020, that rate was 11%. However, the report does not distinguish between violent and non-violent offenders or between those that participated in programming and those that did not. As we have noted in a previous article, the reporting and tracking of outcomes need improvement.

The newly implemented reforms also encouraged using probation as an alternative to prison and increased opportunities for people to earn supervised release from prison. It helped to shorten the length of time people serve on probation or parole, allowing officers to focus on the beginning of a person’s sentence when offenders are more likely to violate the conditions of their supervision and creating a more manageable caseload for probation and parole officers. As a result, the reforms reduced the percentage of people on probation and parole by 38% over the last five years.

At this important five-year mark, criminal justice reforms appear to be meeting lawmakers’ and other supporters’ stated goals. However, continued effective implementation and improved data collection, analysis, and reporting will be extremely important. Furthermore, the system must not only focus on keeping individuals out of prison; it should help those involved in the justice system truly get a second chance to prosper and flourish in their lives, including through meaningful employment. Only then can we truly know the effectiveness of these reforms.