The hidden costs of throwing away the key and the growth of the sentencing reform movement

Criminal justice reform hasn’t traditionally been a hot topic among conservatives. If anything, they have been known for tough-on-crime policies. However, over the past few years, that has begun to change. In what can only be described as a radical shift in policy priorities, states which have long been known for a lock ’em up and throw away the key approach to criminal justice have recently begun to consider alternative approaches.  These states seek to contain the spiraling costs associated with imprisonment, bring down stubbornly high rates of recidivism, and reduce the harm to families and communities caused by imprisonment.

Right on Crime, a conservative group, has been one of the major leaders of the movement for sentencing reform. Featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the group has been gaining traction nationally. One of the greatest factors in their growth is their broad appeal. Where political movements are often restricted to one side of the political spectrum or another, the necessity for sentencing reform is one that finds support on both sides of the aisle:

“Motivations for the push are many. Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime. Among the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state. And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail. … The initiatives have drawn praise from groups that aren’t often allied with the GOP, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. The result is some unlikely bedfellows, with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council working alongside the ACLU.


Here in Louisiana
According to the Times-Picayune, Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. Because drastic increases in the incarceration rate have had a limited effect on crime while exacerbating the state’s ongoing budget difficulties, Louisiana has begun engaging in modest sentencing reforms – though not as aggressively as neighboring Texas.

These reforms began in 2010, when House Bill 1361 became law. HB 1361 provided for continuous, rather than annual, review of the state sentencing structure in order to recommend “sentencing policy that ensures public safety and the imposition of appropriate and just sentences in terms that are clear and transparent and which make the most efficient use of the correctional system and community resources.”

Governor Jindal and the legislature followed up on this first step in 2011 by enacting laws which established a system of sanctions for people on probation and parole in order to reduce the rate at which they re-offend; began a study on the use of home incarceration as an alternative to imprisonment; and enabled first-time non-violent and non-sex offenders who are eligible for parole to receive consideration for parole after serving 25% of their sentence.

In 2012, Jindal and the legislature continued their reform efforts by enacting bills which, among other things, simplified the calculation of how much good-time a prisoner has earned and “increased the amount of good-time an offender may earn from thirty five days for every thirty days, to one and one-half days for every day served in actual custody,” and removed any statements made by an offender during an administrative sanctions process, and also removed the notice of violation from exceptions to the hearsay rule.

(from Wikipedia, derived from Prisoners in 2008, a report from the US Department of Justice)


Avoiding Unnecessary Incarceration
In 2012, Act 159 was enacted which allowed parole-eligible non-violent and non-sex offenders second offenders to be considered for parole after serving one-third of their sentences, rather than half. Act 160 allowed a judge to suspend a mandatory minimum sentence for a person convicted of a non-violent and non-sex offense upon agreement of the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Act 399 created re-entry courts for the 22nd and 19th Judicial District Courts in St Tammany and Washington Parishes and East Baton Rouge parish. Re-entry courts are designed to help young offenders reconsider the direction their lives are taking and facilitate their re-entry into society in an effort to reduce recidivism:

Since last summer, Hunter and White have ordered about 40 nonviolent offenders with relatively short sentences to serve their time at Angola state penitentiary under the tutelage of inmate mentors. Those without high school degrees earn their GEDs. All get certified in a trade and spend evenings in “life skills” classes while constantly being prodded by the older inmates to pull up their pants, stop cursing and respect others.

Every instructor in the program, from the auto shop supervisor to the man in charge of the substance abuse class, is a long-term inmate who will live the rest of his life at Angola, barring a reprieve from the usually stingy parole or pardon boards. The trump card in their teaching arsenal: “Don’t end up like me.”

Act 152 gave judges greater discretion in appropriately sentencing people convicted of simple escape from a work release program, and removed the requirement that any such sentence be served in addition to the original sentence.

Perhaps most importantly of all for Louisiana, Act 389, authored by Rep. Joe Lopinto, will allow non-violent offenders convicted of simple possession or possession with intent to distribute small amounts of drugs to be placed in drug treatment programs rather than prison.


The Need for Continuing Reform
One disappointment of the legislature this year was their failure to even consider a bill filed by Rep. Austin Badon which would have tempered Louisiana’s draconian penalties for possession of marijuana. Currently, a person convicted of even a tiny amount of marijuana can be sentenced to up to six months in prison. A second-time offender can be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined $2,500, and those convicted three or more times can be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

While lawbreakers should be punished, there is a growing consensus that overly harsh sentences are destroying families, causing children to grow up without fathers in their lives (which often results in those children being incarcerated themselves), and condemning ex-offenders to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty. Further, the costs of incarceration continue to grow, placing increased pressure on taxpayers and policymakers. Clearly, Louisiana can find a better way to fight crime, prioritize victims and protect taxpayers.