Diverse groups support “evidence-based” corrections practices for Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. – Louisiana’s stand as the nation’s leader for incarceration is the target of fivenewbills from the state’s SentencingCommission.

Joe Lopinto (R-Metairie), sponsor of three of the bills, says the state has an enormous prison population of low-risk, non-violent offenders. Onein 55 Louisianiansisbehindbars, and he believes the annual cost of $665 million is extreme.

“It’s easy to say ‘lock them up, and throw away the key’ when someone else is paying for it. But we’ve got to ask ourselves whether it’s worth the expense.”

Lopinto believes archaic rules contribute to Louisiana’s high incarceration rate; hence the need for reform. For example, he describes current requirements on parole eligibility as unnecessarily onerous, with only a small fraction of prisoners up for parole each year.

These bills (HBs 106, 414, 415, 416, and SB 202) would allow the Public Safety Department to apply swift punishment for parole and probation violations; establish training requirements for parole board members; shorten the time criteria for parole eligibility of non-violent offenders; initiate a centralized database of offenders on home incarceration; and streamline the calculations which allow for early release on account of good behavior.

Of the five bills (explained furtherhere), two have passed through committee, one is with the Criminal Justice Committee, and two await assignment. HB 106, sponsored by Helena Moreno (D-New Orleans), is set for debate on Thursday, May 19.

While the Commission’s final report is not due until early 2012, the preliminary recommendations and subsequent legislation are the product of a broad review, involving numerous stakeholders. For example, thePewCenterontheStates and the VeraInstituteofJustice – national, nonpartisan policy institutes – have collaborated on the project.

Bobby Constantino of Vera says their role is to assist the Louisiana Sentencing Commission by providing explanations of and data relating to “evidence-based” reform practices from other states. The Pew Center’s website says its role is to identify “innovative approaches” and advocate for “pragmatic solutions.”

Along with the Office of the Governor, numerous and varied organizations have given official support to at least three pieces of Sentencing Commission legislation. They include the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, the First United Methodist Church of Baton Rouge, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, and the Pelican Institute for Public Policy.

Any attempt to reduce sentence lengths may draw resistance from proponents of strict enforcement. However, this legislation follows the national RightonCrime campaign, which seekstobringtoughoncrimeconservatives on board with prison reform. Its rapid success at generating highprofilesupporters, even while aligningwithorganizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, suggests a widespread willingness to acknowledge America’s disproportionate prison population.