This commentary originally appeared in The News Star on November 13, 2017.
Criminal Justice Reform in Louisiana has begun and it’s a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.
This past legislative session, Louisiana lawmakers overwhelmingly passed sweeping evidence-based reforms to our state’s criminal justice system that will safely reduce the Pelican State’s prison population, the nation’s highest by rate, by 10 percent over the next 10 years.
These reforms, which have been implemented in dozens of other conservative states, have shown that both lower prison populations and increased public safety are possible in concert.
These changes resulted in about 1,900 nonviolent offenders being released slightly early (on average, two months early) on Nov. 1. To put it into context, 1,500 inmates are normally released each and every month.
There has been much said in the media and by elected officials leading up to and beyond the Nov. 1 releases of offenders in Louisiana. Unfortunately, much of what has been said is peppered with untruths and inflammatory statements not based in fact.
The nominal early releases of eligible offenders began on Nov. 1 as provided in Senate Bill 139 (Act 280). The main premise of the new law is to decrease time served from 40 percent to 35 percent on non-violent/non-sex offense sentences through awarding good time for good behavior.
The aspect of “good time” being awarded is given in consideration for good behavior and has been glossed over in news accounts.
Having worked with incarcerated populations for over 25 years and having diverse experience in corrections work, the offenders who qualify for any good time consideration are those who are doing their time on non-violent/non-sex related offenses. To accrue good time, you must be a model offender with no bad behavior or the good time gained can be easily taken away, adding days back on to your time of incarceration.
Concerns have been raised that many of the offenders releasing are not fully prepared for assimilating back into society as good citizens due to a lack of in-prison rehabilitative life skills programming.
It is important to remember that these eligible offenders were going to be released soon whether Act 280 went into effect or not. However, these offenders will have received reentry training prior to release, something that would likely not have occurred without these legislative changes.
As part of the package that was passed in June, another bill channeled some of the savings realized from the implementation of the other reforms back into the very programs that have proven to change criminogenic behavior and lower recidivism. By the end of next year, these funds will be made available to proven community service providers, law enforcement and local correctional facilities to enhance and/or expand reentry programming that is data driven and evidence-based.
Reentry services for returning citizens are growing in the state. Through a very detailed and strategic effort between the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the Center for Justice Innovation, a Louisiana-based non-profit, a number of communities experiencing the largest number of individuals returning from prison will benefit from this new initiative. The center will work with existing community service providers to provide coordination of needed services, identify service gaps and connect with private funders focused on prison reentry.
As any marathon race runner will tell you, it is the first few miles that are the hardest, but once you get into your stride, you can just keep running and running. For Louisiana’s criminal justice reform efforts, we are in our early miles, but if we will remain diligent and follow the proven successful footsteps of other states that have gone before us such as Texas, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, we too can win our race to move from the top of the list of incarcerator states to a more viable lower ranking. When we do, we will improve public safety, save taxpayer dollars and see tax burdens become tax payers with all our families enjoying an improved quality of life.