Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Louisiana Sentencing Reforms and their (Unlikely?) Supporter

This thoughtful article from Louisiana's The Advocate provides some jaw-dropping statistics on the Pelican State's prison population and budget and urges lawmakers to pass reforms and be smarter on crime:

Here are the facts. Our state has the largest prison population per capita in the nation. One in every 55 adults in Louisiana is behind bars. This year alone, Louisiana will spend more than $670 million on adult corrections.
Unfortunately, a lot of our corrections dollars are being spent to lock up nonviolent, low-risk offenders for relatively minor offenses — needlessly inflating Louisiana’s corrections budget and straining our ability to focus on higher-risk and violent offenders.
Offenders convicted of nonviolent offenses accounted for 82 percent of all prison admissions in Louisiana. ...

These low-level violations and certain nonviolent drug-related crimes can be effectively punished (and diminished over time) using other proven methods that are much less expensive than prison.
Blueprint Louisiana supports this “smart-on-crime” approach.
So, who is Blueprint Louisiana?  Well, it's a nonprofit organization governed by a board of trustees composed mostly of CEOs and corporate presidents, and its vision is to improve Louisiana and make it inhabited by "a people rightly proud to say, 'I live in Louisiana.'"  Sentencing reform is part of that vision:
Be “smart on crime” by revising outdated sentencing and parole guidelines:  $2 to $6 million in potential savings in FY12.  
Louisiana incarcerates nearly 40,000 adults, of which almost 30 percent are non-violent drug offenders who are not eligible for parole consideration. This cost the state nearly $670 million in the current fiscal year, of which the vast majority is State General Fund. In 2008, the legislature required the Louisiana Sentencing Commission to conduct a rigorous review of statutes and sentencing guidelines and make biannual recommendations for consistency and adequacy of prison terms. The re-invigorated Commission should be encouraged to produce specific recommendations for re-visiting and standardizing sentencing guidelines, especially for outdated laws on drug offenses—which the legislature and administration should act upon. These recommendations should include more parole eligibility and community-based options, which are less expensive and more effective in reducing recidivism when evidence-based practices are utilized.
In the short-term, a number of states are pursuing early medical parole, where vacant nursing home beds and wings are utilized for terminally ill and incapacitated prisoners at a lower cost than state institutions while still providing for public safety—a policy change that national groups are supporting across the U.S. Nearly 6,000 offenders in Louisiana are over the age of 50. This first step could provide immediate State General Fund savings for Fiscal Year 2012. The legislature should consider a change to the statutes to clarify eligibility criteria and to authorize a majority vote of the board for medical parole hearings, rather than a unanimous vote.
How exciting to see another group of business leaders taking a stand in favor of smarter, less expensive, more effective sentencing policies -- in a state like Louisiana, nonetheless!  State budget crises may be more prevalent than ever, but this is their silver lining -- not only bringing sentencing reforms, but also bringing new voices and allies into the fight.