Louisiana Imprisons People at an Astounding Rate. That May be About to Change

Facing a huge human and fiscal cost, a Louisiana task force is recommending major changes to how the state's criminal justice system.


Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Louisiana dwarfs the rest of the country when it comes to putting people in prison, but now state officials say they have a plan to reduce the state's staggering incarceration rate and save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.

The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force—composed of state legislators, corrections officials, public defenders, judges, law enforcement, and district attorneys—finalized a report Thursday to overhaul the state's criminal justice system.

"Louisiana is not only the incarceration capital of the country, we are the incarceration capital of the world," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement Thursday. "For too long this has been a stain on our reputation and a drain on our communities. It's not a reflection of who we are and what we stand for. We now have a roadmap that will allow us to keep our streets safe while shrinking our bloated prisons."

The task force's proposals would introduce a more rigorous felony classification system, which would reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes and expand eligibility for parole and drug courts. It would also increase the amount of "good time" some inmates could use to shave off their sentences, and increase funding for transition and work programs to assist inmates reentering society. Also, those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles would be made eligible for parole, bringing the state in line with a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that declared such sentences unconstitutional.

Overall, the task force estimates that its plan could reduce Louisiana's prison population by 13 percent—more than 4,000 prison beds—and save the state $305 million over the next decade. Half of those savings would be spent on research into reducing recidivism and victim support.

For perspective on just how much of an outlier Louisiana is when it comes to incarceration: Louisiana's rate as of 2015 was 816 incarcerated individuals per 100,000, almost double the national average, which is itself the highest in the world. Louisiana also has the second-highest wrongful conviction rate, according to the National Registry on Exonerations. The task force is blunt in its assessment of why Louisiana's numbers are so high.

"A chief reason Louisiana leads the nation in imprisonment is that it locks up people for nonviolent offenses far more than other states do," the report says. "The Task Force found that the state sent people to prison for drug, property, and other nonviolent offenses at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, even though the states had nearly identical crime rates. More than half of those sent to prison in 2015 had failed on community supervision. Among the rest—those sentenced directly to prison rather than probation—the top 10 crimes were all nonviolent, the most common by far being drug possession."

James LeBlanc, the head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the chair of the task force, says the numbers alone should be a warning sign to policy makers.

"First of all being a poster-child for locking up twice as many people as the national average is a good sign that, hey, we're not doing something right," LeBlanc says in an interview with Reason. "On top of that, as many people as we're locking up, we still rank in many categories in the top 10 if not top five in the country on crime."

LeBlanc, who has worked in Louisiana corrections for 40 years, said the state has stubbornly clung to a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality—encouraged by federal grants in the '90s that rewarded states for passing tough sentencing laws—that most other states have moved away from over the past two decades.

Louisiana is also unique in that a significant amount of state prisoners serve their sentences in local parish jails, where there is often scant rehabilitative, work-training, and reentry programs. Those lengthy sentences and lack of support services led to high recidivism rates, funneling many ex-offenders right back into the system. "A recipe for disaster," LeBlanc says. According to the report, one in three people return to Louisiana's prisons within three years.

LeBlanc says the state correctional system has been improving: Its recidivism rates are down and the prison population has dropped every year over the past four years, for a total of nearly 5,000 fewer inmates. But it has only been over the past couple of years, and especially after the exit of conservative Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, that bipartisan momentum started to build for a more comprehensive fix to Louisiana's criminal justice system.

State prosecutors, however, are not on board with the proposals. Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, says his organization opposes any efforts that would lead to the release of violent offenders, including the task force's proposals to introduce parole valves for those serving mandatory life sentences.

"We're in support of what the task force was originally trying to do, which was identify and reduce incarnation of nonviolent offenders to the extent it would not increase the risk to public safety," Adams says in an interview with Reason. "When the task force starts floating proposals that would reduced sentences for violent offenders, we're not in support of that, conceptually."

The split illustrates what many criminal justice experts say is the biggest roadblock to significantly reducing the prison population, not just in Louisiana but across the entire country: moving beyond so-called "low-hanging fruit" like nonviolent drug offenders to criminals convicted of violent crimes.

"We're not saying let all these violent offenders out," LeBlanc counters. "Look, I've been in this business long enough to know and spent enough time at Angola. You sit down and you talk to some of these guys that have been down 45 or 50 years, they're 60 or 70-years old, even have gotten married since they've been in prison. Their propensity to commit crime stops around 45. I call it criminal menopause. I think they deserve at least an opportunity. I'm not saying let them out. I'm saying give them a process."

There are nearly 5,000 lifers in Louisiana prisons, and in Louisiana, a life sentence means means exactly that, no exceptions. Louisiana is only one of two states where second-degree murder is a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Beyond the opposition of district attorneys, the task force has the support of a broad group of state organizations, from business to evangelical to liberal to conservative, and from national groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts, which advised the task force. The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative Louisiana think-tank, says in a statement it "fully supports" the task force's recommendations.

"These evidence based, data driven recommendations offer the potential for millions of dollars in taxpayer savings, expanded workforce opportunities for the recently incarcerated, and a reduction in crime rates as seen in other Southern states that have implemented similar reforms," the think-tank says. "As the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, Louisiana cannot afford to continue to invest in a system that does not work and does not produce results. At least 33 states have already passed justice reinvestment reforms and have seen taxpayer costs and crime decline. Now is the time for our legislature to be tough and smart on crime so that Louisiana, too, can finally get the results its citizens deserve."

The task force proposals are expected to be introduced as legislation this April.