New Crime Laws Should Come with Watchful Oversight

As the special session on crime got underway, CABL’s RESET Louisiana partnership with PAR and the Committee of 100 urged lawmakers to make decisions based on data and best practices and not to back pedal on the criminal justice reforms of 2017.

During this session lawmakers passed about 20 bills that do a variety of things. But in the aftermath, it is unclear what impact the new laws will have on the crime rate and to what degree they will thwart the reforms that helped reduce the state’s massive prison population and pumped more than $150 million into programs designed to help offenders return to society.

The 2017 reforms grew out of research that showed Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate was costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars and was far out of sync with practices in other southern and neighboring states.

One study looked at incarceration rates in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. All three states had similar rates of both violent and non-violent crime. Yet, Louisiana jailed twice as many non-violent offenders on a per capita basis as South Carolina and about three times more than Florida.

Not only did that come at tremendous expense, but it wasn’t making Louisiana any safer than other states. A state task force studying the issue found that Louisiana inmates were entering prison with longer sentences and fewer opportunities to earn release than in many neighboring states. This included significant restrictions on parole eligibility for many non-violent offenders.

The reforms were aimed at reducing the large number of incarcerated non-violent offenders and taking the savings from incarceration and reinvesting them into re-entry programs, job training, and enhanced community supervision. A recent report from the state’s legislative auditor found that since the criminal justice reforms were implemented, the number of offenders jailed by the state decreased, the percentage of violent offenders in jail increased, and the percentage of offenders returning to prison declined.

The report notes that these findings were in line with the criminal justice reform goals of focusing prison beds on those found to be serious threats to public safety.

There were many facets to the criminal justice reform bills of 2017 and much of what was enacted then remains in place. But lawmakers did make some significant changes. Among them:

  • Lengthening the percentage of the sentence that inmates are required to serve.
  • Virtually eliminating parole opportunities.
  • Limiting good time release.
  • Lengthening some sentences.
  • Requiring the placement of some non-violent juvenile offenders in secure custody.
  • Making it easier to return people to jail for technical parole violations.

The concern is what impact all of these new laws will have going forward.

Some lawmakers tangled with representatives from the Legislative Fiscal Office over how much the legislation will cost. The Fiscal Office said repeatedly that expenses will increase “to accommodate longer periods of incarceration,” though it acknowledged it was impossible to determine an exact figure.

But some legislators pushed back, arguing that many of the costs were inflated. They said that inmates won’t necessarily be in jail any longer than they are now because judges will sentence them differently and the new laws will be a deterrence to crime. Even if the new laws do cost more money, legislative leaders said they view these changes as a priority and, as such, will find a way to pay for it.

From CABL’s perspective, our concern is that some of the key elements of the 2017 reforms appear to have been rolled back. Several of the new changes impact not only violent offenders, but also those involved in non-violent crimes – the part of the prison population we were trying to reduce and return more productively to society.

Despite the arguments about cost and impact, it seems likely that incarceration rates will increase, costs to the state will rise, and the availability of funds for re-entry programs, skills training, and drug rehabilitation could well be diminished.

To what extent will all that happen? The real answer is, we just don’t know. The initial impacts of the new legislation will likely not be felt for at least 2-3 years, and it is possible things could play out in differing ways.

What we hope is that lawmakers will keep a watchful eye on what happens next. The premise behind the original reforms was a sound one. It was in line with best practices and what other states were already doing. It was also showing progress.

We will be waiting to see if the same can be said for this new approach.

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