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Listen Up Louisiana! Mississippi moving ahead with criminal justice reform

15th April 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Guest Columnist

Louisiana and Mississippi usually vie for the bottom or somewhere near the bottom spot on national polls, often interchanging positions depending on the topic. When it comes to locking people up, Louisiana holds the dubious distinction of being the nation’s incarceration capital with Mississippi following a close second. However, if Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has anything to do with it, his state is going to relinquish that number two spot soon, and Louisiana DA’s, law enforcement officers and the department of corrections should be paying attention. Bryant recently signed into law Mississippi House Bill 585, designed to begin reforming the state’s criminal justice system. Modeled after reform measures passed in other Republican run states including Texas, HB 585 takes effect July 1st.

It addresses such things as sentencing changes, with lower mandatory minimum requirements; and will allow judges more flexibility to impose alternate sentences, such as treatment programs for drug users. Military veterans will have special courts for those with traumatic brain injuries, depression or drug and alcohol problems. HB 585 is expected to protect public safety and save the state of Mississippi about $266 million over ten years. And, according to Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, these changes will help reduce the state’s incarceration numbers and turn the number two position over to someone else.

Here at Home

Mississippi officials were clear that the new bill’s main objective is to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive to operate. In other words, it’s about the bottom line. In Louisiana, where the annual Department of Correction’s budget is close to $700 million dollars, we could stand to take a good long look at what Mississippi and other states like Georgia and Texas are doing to lower the costs and reduce their prison populations. And, while at the ACLU of Louisiana we base our concern about mass incarceration on the harmful effects on the individuals in the system, we understand and share the concerns for the fiscal impact as well. Right now there are roughly70, 000 people incarcerated in Louisiana’s jails and prisons, about 40,000 in state facilities and another 30,000 in local and parish jails. That’s roughly $18,000 spent per inmate, per year. With only 37% of those serving time for violent crime and roughly 63% for minor and nonviolent offenses, it’s clear that we could, as Mississippi has recognized, revamp our system in ways that will both save money and keep people home with their families and their jobs, with no harm to public safety.

The difficulty with reforming the criminal justice system in Louisiana lies with the fact that a lot of people make a living with things just the way they are. A busy DA’s office can demand more lawyers, money and resources. Law enforcement agencies employ people whose job it is it arrest and incarcerate those caught up in “tough on crime” laws. And, in Louisiana, where many jailers receive a daily stipend for every person held in their cells, criminal justice reform is met with understandable resistance.

Listen Up Louisiana!

Sentencing reform and greater judicial flexibility are at the core of Mississippi’s HB 585, but reform can have many starting points. In Louisiana, during the current legislative session, a number of bills on marijuana reform are making their way through the system. Ban the Box legislation is also making a comeback and legislation requiring DOC to reinvest savings from reform back into education, treatment and training programs and initiatives is also up for review. Bills like these, if successful, would help produce some of the same kind of results expected in Mississippi, including better public safety, a more efficient system and reduced costs to taxpayers by offering alternatives and in turn reducing the number of people incarcerated.

Listen up Louisiana! We should not be content to be the nation’s top jailer, but instead, should look to the examples of our neighbors to the east. Mississippi modeled its reform on Texas. We are caught in the middle. If both our neighbors agree that locking up more people for longer periods no longer works, what are we waiting for?

This article originally published in the April 14, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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