By Robert Mann
Would it be wise for Louisiana to stick a petty thief in prison for five years for swiping $31 of candy? Of course not. That would be counterproductive and a ridiculous waste of scarce state funds.
Therefore, it may not surprise you that Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office has proposed just such a sentence for a New Orleans candy bar bandit. As Cannizaro’s questionable judgment suggests, Louisiana’s criminal justice system is broken.
More on the candy theft later, but it is heartening that cases like it have brought Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana’s Legislature together on one issue, at least. Most agree that our criminal laws are an outdated mess and are responsible for Louisiana’s shameful distinction as the state with the country’s highest incarceration rate — 108 percent higher (in 2014) than the national average.
Our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. The number of state inmates ballooned by 35 percent over the past two decades. Far too many (more than half in 2014) sit in poorly staffed parish jails, many of them lacking services that might qualify as true “corrections.”
Years of budget cuts to the state’s Department of Corrections have damaged an already threadbare institution, arguably one of the most important in state government. (Do we really want the people who guard violent offenders to make do with less?)
The situation is worse in local prisons. The powerful Louisiana Sheriff’s Association is addicted to the $24.39 a day its members receive for housing state inmates (that may drop by $2 after budget cuts imposed by lawmakers this summer). Those cheap rates mean that many state inmates in local jails receive nothing like the medical, psychological and rehabilitation services offered at the state prison at Angola or other state-run institutions.
None of this makes us safer, by the way. Louisiana has the nation’s third-highest overall crime rate and among the nation’s highest violent crime rates.
All signs point to a moment of crisis in corrections. Thankfully, it could also be a moment of opportunity. That’s the approach that Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers in both parties appear to be taking.
In the recent regular legislative session, Edwards signed legislation to stop the state from sending 17-year-old offenders into adult prisons, diverting them, instead, to the juvenile justice system. And last year, lawmakers created the bipartisan Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which will soon propose sentencing and corrections policy reforms for consideration during the 2017 legislative session.
Continue reading at this link.