By Bryn Stole and John Simerman
A thorny reality confronts Louisiana lawmakers as they begin to consider a series of measures designed to hack away at the nation’s highest incarceration rate.
The inmates with the biggest impact on the prison population, according to state data, may also be the bloodiest.
Though much of the discussion over a raft of criminal justice reforms headed for the Legislature this spring has focused on those sent to prison for nonviolent crimes — drug or property offenses like burglary — it’s a smaller group of inmates serving extremely long sentences that have an outsized impact on Louisiana’s prison population and, by extension, the state budget.
The average inmate arriving at a state prison each year will spend less than three years behind bars. But the relatively small cadre of long-serving prisoners, most of them convicted of violent and serious crimes, consumed far more prison resources — measured by nights in a prison cot, by tax dollars spent to house and feed them or by mounting doctors’ bills as they age — than any other group.
Advocates for a far-reaching reworking of Louisiana’s sentencing laws and prison system point to those numbers as they argue that an exclusive focus on nonviolent offenders won’t bring about the kind of transformative reduction in the prison population needed to shed Louisiana’s dubious distinction as the world’s most jailed place.
“You have this double whammy going on. The more expensive inmates and the number of them have been increasing greatly. That’s really the money issue,” said State Public Defender Jay Dixon.
But proposals to cut prison terms or offer a chance at release to violent criminals serving life sentences have also attracted the stiffest opposition. As Louisiana lawmakers prepare to debate a raft of criminal justice reforms prepared by the governor’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force, that is where the sharpest battle lines have been drawn.
The state’s district attorneys argue that giving parole eligibility to murderers, rapists and armed robbers poses a threat to public safety and breaks promises to victims.
Bo Duhé, a member of the task force and the district attorney for the three-parish 16th Judicial District in Acadiana, said the vast majority of lifers “forfeited the right to live in a free society” when they committed brutal crimes. The task force, he said, should have remained focused only on less serious offenses.
“We should take lower-level offenders, nonviolent offenders, and try to rehabilitate them, and truly reserve the prison space for your serious and violent offenders,” he said.