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Groups seek to address La.’s incarceration rates

28th October 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

On Wednesday, October 22, at UNO’s Jefferson campus, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pelican Institute for Public Policy hosted a public forum to discuss ways to reverse Louisiana’s status as the world’s incarceration leader.

The ACLU’s executive director, Marjorie Esman, reminded the small audience of reporters, lawyers and politicians that one in 86 Louisiana adults are in prison – twice the national average. As Governor Jindal slashes education and healthcare, Esman pointed out, taxpayers are being asked to spend more on incarceration, mostly for non-violent offenders.

The Department of Corrections budget for 2013-2014 is $390,625,856, not including the cost of police, prosecutors and public defenders.

According to Esman, The continuing record rate of murders in New Orleans proves that incarceration is a drain on society and that does almost nothing to solve Louisiana’s crime problem.

“It’s not making us any safer to lock most of these people up,” said Esman. “And if it’s not safer to have them there, we shouldn’t have them there.”

The Pelican Institute’s Kevin Kane pointed out that even tough-on-crime conservatives like himself are ready to look at ways to decrease Louisiana’s prison population. Kane admitted that monetary incentives are a big part of Louisiana’s problem. “Louisiana reserves per diem money, so Sheriffs have a financial incentive to keep beds full,” said Kane. DOC pays $24.39 per day for those offenders assigned to the local level, while those in Transitional Work Programs are worth $11.25 per day (for programs that directly contract with DOC) and $15.39 for in-house programs. Kane claimed that in 1992, 2,000 state prisoners were being held, but since the financial incentive was added, they’re now holding 20,000. “We need to remove that incentive,” he said bluntly.

“We need to look at what other states are doing,” Kane continued, telling the story of how, in Texas in 2007, rather than build a new proposed prison, the state spent $240 million in diversion strategies and rehabilitation, revamped the probations system, and between 2007 and 2013 reduced the state’s inmate population by 4,606. “In 2011, the state closed a prison first time in their history,” said Kane.

Much of the panel’s talk revolved around what types of people should not be in jail. Everyone on the panel agreed that geriatric prisoners are not only less of a threat, but that the cost of their hospice and medications is only going up. Esman also pointed out that many poor people are in jail simply because they can’t afford bail: “These are not people who are guilty, they are just waiting for trial. They are clogging our city and parish jails, and in the meantime they can’t work, and someone else needs to feed their kids, and those are all taxpayer expenses.”

Panelist Representative Joseph Lopinto (R-Metairie), Chairman of the Louisiana House Admin­istration of Criminal Justice Committee, blamed Louisiana’s culture of high sentencing, especially the three-strikes law. “On their third offense a person might get 30 years for something they should have gotten two years for,” said Lopinto. He believes that parole should be an option for more prisoners – for now, Louisiana prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and the thousands of prisoners serving life sentences are ineligible for parole. Lopinto also suggested that those considered accessories to crimes should not be sentenced as harshly. “A guy who’s just sitting in the car still might get 10 years just like the offender,” he said. “We have to give judges the ability to differentiate.”

Race was discussed (Esman said that one out of three black men in Louisiana are under some kind of correctional control) as was marijuana, and the fact that Black men are more likely to go to jail for pot than white men. Third-time marijuana offenders are sometimes given life sentences. Judge Fredericka Wicker of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission stated that drug offenders are best dealt with community-based sentencing.

Wicker also said Louisiana and its citizenry should focus on Louisiana’s “unacceptably high recidivism rate.” According to the state, the five-year recidivism rate is 45.3 percent. “If everyone who got out had someone waiting for them,” added Marjorie Esman, “someone who would help them to get IDs, and make sure they meet with parole officers, that alone would make a big difference.”

Meanwhile, across town, construction continues on a new jail set to house another 1,200 inmates.

This article originally published in the October 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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