Justice Reinvestment Task Force an opportunity to advance fiscal and humanitarian goals

As the state of Louisiana grapples with yet another budgetary crisis, public attention has rightfully affixed itself to one of the causes of this perennial fiscal chaos, which is Louisiana’s over-expansive criminal justice system.

Louisiana spends approximately $700 million annually on corrections. It is also well known that Louisiana harbors the country’s highest per capita rate of imprisonment and that our state consistently ranks at the bottom of national crime statistics. One of the primary culprits of this is the scourge of recidivism. Four out of every ten offenders in Louisiana return to corrections within 3 years of being released, perpetuating this vicious cycle.

These crippling price tags associated with incarceration have been so burdensome as to affect bipartisan reforms in a number of traditionally conservative states, most notably Texas, but also Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, among others. This wave of reform, and its conservative provenance, has not gone unnoticed. In a recent televised debate between Democratic Presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the subject of the failed mass incarceration policy came up, and Senator Sanders surprisingly, albeit justifiably, tipped his hat to the efforts of conservative reformers in scaling back the unsustainable mass incarceration complex.

One of the engines of this reform movement is the realization that traditional incarceration as a uniform policy has failed. This is in part because imprisonment is not the best avenue of dealing with every offender that enters the system. This salient recognition has led reformers to embrace a number of better suited alternatives as a means of preventing recidivism and suppressing costs.

Among these beneficial, more flexible options are alternative courts, such as drug courts or juvenile courts, revised sentencing guidelines, as well as mental health and substance abuse treatment plans for offenders. Other critical alternatives include increased utilization of probation and parole which are vastly less costly and are tied to lower rates of recidivism than corrections.

Louisiana lawmakers have recently passed a number of other reforms designed at mitigating the human cost and financial freefall associated with over-incarceration. Since 2011, the state correctional population has declined by 8 percent while crime has declined 6 percent. Louisiana nevertheless lags behind its peers in incarceration, a problem which is compounded by the looming budget crisis.

This will hopefully be reversed with the recent creation of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force by the Louisiana State Legislature. The Justice Reinvestment Task Force is a concept which has been embraced by a number of our neighboring states to successful ramifications. It essentially creates a bipartisan panel which provides a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s criminal justice system and delivers policy recommendations on how to mitigate the underlying structural problems and the reverberating effects – over-incarceration and financial strain.

In the 2015 Legislative Session, state lawmakers passed H.R. 82 to establish the Task Force in order to further reform Louisiana’s overburdened and problematic criminal justice system. The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force will issue policy recommendations no later than March 1, 2017.

Specifically, the Justice Reinvestment Task Force aims to create data-driven, evidence-based recommendations on how to reduce correctional populations and associated criminal justice spending by focusing prison space on serious and violent criminals, holding offenders accountable more efficiently by implementing or expanding research-based supervision and sentencing practices, and reinvesting savings into strategies shown to decrease recidivism, including improved reentry outcomes.

It is imperative to note that the Task Force exists not only to ameliorate financial strain but aims to make the citizens of Louisiana safer. As aforementioned, the status quo of mass incarceration has failed to make Louisianans any safer, especially given the astronomical price tag. The holistic approach of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force has been enacted to substantial success in other states, and holds great potential for eliminating detrimental and outdated strategies that bankrupt the state while keeping us no safer.

In composition, the Justice Reinvestment Task Force is a bipartisan panel comprised of 14 seasoned Louisiana law and policy makers from all three branches of government as well as various entities of the justice system. Members include Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, Representatives Terry Landry, Sr. and Walt Leger, III, and Senator Dan Claitor, among others. In addition, Sheriff Michael Cazes, District Attorney Bofill (Bo) Duhé, Honorable Bonnie Jackson, and Jay Dixon of the State Public Defender’s Office are among those representing the state justice system. The multivariate composition of the panel is meant to reflect a diversity of philosophical and legal perspectives necessary to better reform the status quo.

Justice Reinvestment in other states has a demonstrated track record of being implemented effectively. South Carolina, which enacted reform legislation in 2010, has seen tremendous savings and benefits. A 2014 study found that the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010 has created 928 jobs, a $37 million increase in the state’s gross product, a $14 million total social net benefit, $233,000 saved in court costs, coupled with a 6.3 decrease in violent crime and 17.9 drop in recidivism. Additionally, three South Carolina prisons have closed as of September 2015. North Carolina, which enacted the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2011, expects to save an estimated $560 million over 6 years and has closed eleven small prisons since the law was created.

The creation of these Task Forces nationwide is the culmination of conservative embracing of reform based on both humanitarian and financial realizations. Our neighbors have paved the way: now Louisiana is positioned to engage in a substantive effort to improve its criminal justice system and to yield the benefits that so many other states are enjoying.

Jamison Beuerman is an Adjunct Scholar at the Pelican Institute. He will graduate with a Master of Criminal Justice from Loyola University New Orleans in July, and has received a Juris Doctor from Louisiana State University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes College.