Fight to cut Louisiana's high mass incarceration rate must continue

It’s far too early for our elected officials or anyone else who cares about the future of our state to break out the champagne and celebrate Louisiana’s progress in reducing its enormous incarceration rate.

Despite reports that Oklahoma has edged out Louisiana as the country’s number-one incarcerator, Louisiana remains in the midst of an incarceration crisis. This is true for at least three reasons.

First, even after recent reforms, Louisiana is still breaking the bank by locking up people who do not need to be incarcerated. Taxpayers can’t afford to keep wasting millions on the failed policies of mass incarceration. The state will spend almost $730 million on adult corrections this year,[1] not to mention the additional tax dollars spent by parishes and municipalities.[2]

Meanwhile, the governor and responsible members of the Legislature are trying to make up a $500 million budget shortfall.[3] This is not advanced mathematics: Louisiana could make substantial progress in closing the budget gap if it were to spend less on corrections by releasing people from prisons and jails who do not need to be incarcerated. 

Only a year ago, a bipartisan coalition of legislators recognized the link between reducing incarceration and putting Louisiana on sound financial footing. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a historic package of 10 bills – seven sponsored by Republicans [4] – is projected to decrease the state’s prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million over a decade.[5] The Louisiana Family Forum, the Association of Business and Industry, and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association all came out in support of the reforms.[6] Further efforts to responsibly decrease the incarceration rate would help alleviate the budget woes our state faces.

Second, for years, mass incarceration has been shown to play no role in reducing crime. Louisiana’s penal system continues to demonstrate almost no relationship to the actual occurrence or prevention of crime. According to data Louisiana law enforcement agencies submitted to the FBI for 2016, Louisiana’s violent and property crime rates were 566 and 3,298 per 100,000 residents, respectively.[7] Although these rates were comparable to Alabama’s and South Carolina’s,[8] Louisiana’s prison admission rate that year was 1.5 times that of Alabama,[9] and nearly twice that of South Carolina.[10]

Moreover, Louisiana’s prison system has had a near-zero effect on decreasing crime since 2000, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice.[11] Even though Louisiana’s imprisonment rate ballooned by 15 percent, then fell back to where it was around 2000,[12] the Brennan Center’s research indicates that any change in the crime rate was the result of factors other than imprisonment. Further evidence that the system is broken is Louisiana’s high recidivism rate: 44.3 percent of people released in 2011 had returned to prison by 2016.[13]

Mass incarceration is simply not keeping people safe from crime.

Third, Louisiana’s prisons increasingly resemble nursing homes. More than 32 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana are 45 years old or older;[14] 21 percent have already served more than 10 years.[15] Given the research showing that people generally age out of crime after their early 20s,[16] it makes little sense to continue locking up people who have already been incarcerated for a significant amount of time, and who are statistically unlikely to commit another crime upon release.

Part of the problem is that Louisiana is an outlier when it comes to life sentences without the possibility of parole. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas all authorize most lifers to be eligible for parole, but in Louisiana, a life sentence generally means life without parole.[17] Approximately 5,000 people, nearly 15 percent of the state’s prison population, are currently under life sentences.[18] The criminal justice system needs to shift to imposing the right sentence, not a life sentence, in all but the most egregious cases.

The success of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will depend on police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, the Legislature, the governor and concerned Louisianans coming together to make sure that people are charged, adjudicated, and sentenced fairly, and that they have access to housing, social services and employment opportunities when they leave prison. At the end of the day, Louisiana’s incarceration rate surpasses the combined rates of Russia, Iran and China, with nearly one percent of its population behind bars.[19]

If Louisiana were a country, it would be only slightly behind Oklahoma in caging people at the second-highest rate in the world.[20] The politics of mass incarceration have failed taxpayers, victims of crime and incarcerated people. Now is not the time to go on autopilot. We have to keep working together to build a criminal justice system that preserves fiscal prudence, deters crime, and promotes justice. 

At the SPLC, we are committed to continuing the fight for a safer, more effective, and more humane Louisiana.  

Sources

[1] This includes $553,570,939 for “corrections services” and $175,200,901 for housing adults under the state’s jurisdiction in parish and local correctional facilities. State Budget: Fiscal Year 2017-2018, LA. DIV. OF ADMIN. 91, 158 (Sept. 29, 2017), http://www.doa.la.gov/opb/pub/FY18/StateBudgetFY18.pdf. Back to report.

[2] The $730 million figure does not include money spent by parishes and municipalities to incarcerate people convicted of misdemeanors under local ordinances and to hold people in pretrial detention. Back to report.

[3] See, e.g., Elizabeth Crisp, Why Louisiana Legislature’s Actions Thursday Might Be Critical to Session’s Success or Failure, THE ADVOCATE (June 20, 2018), http://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/politics/legislature/article... Julia O’Donoghue, 3 Sales Tax Bills Remain in Play To Fix Louisiana’s Budget, NOLA.COM (June 20, 2018), http://s.nola.com/ijd9zuM. Back to report.

[4] Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Reforms: Practitioners’ Guide, LA. DEP’T OF CORR. 6 (Aug. 1, 2017), http://doc.louisiana.gov/media/1/Justice%20Reinvestment%20Task%20Force/l.... Back to report.

[5] Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Package, LA. DEP’T OF CORR. 1, http://doc.louisiana.gov/media/1/Justice%20Reinvestment%20Task%20Force/l... (accessed June 21, 2018). Back to report.

[6] Snapshot: Louisiana Criminal Justice Reinvestment Initiative, OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR (Oct. 16, 2017), http://gov.louisiana.gov/index.cfm/newsroom/detail/1085. Back to report.

[7] Louisiana’s violent crime rate was 566.1 per 100,000 residents, and its property crime rate was 3,297.7 per 100,000 residents. Table 3: Crime in the United States by State, 2016, 2016 CRIME IN THE UNITED STATES, FED. BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/topic-p... (accessed June 21, 2018). Back to report.

[8] Alabama’s violent and property crime rates were 532.3 and 2,947.8 per 100,000 residents, respectively. South Carolina’s violent and property crime rates were 501.8 and 3,243.8 per 100,000 residents, respectively. Id. This means that Louisiana’s violent crime rate was 1.06 times Alabama’s and 1.13 times South Carolina’s, and Louisiana’s property crime rate was 1.12 times Alabama’s and 1.02 times South Carolina’s. Back to report.

[9] The Louisiana Department of Corrections admitted 16,278 people to prison in calendar year 2016. Briefing Book, LA. DEP’T OF PUB. SAFETY & CORR. 87 (Jan. 2018), http://www.doc.la.gov/media/1/Briefing%20Book/Jan%2018/full.bb.jan.18.pdf. The same year, Louisiana had an estimated population of 4,645,670. ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates: 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates: Louisiana, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, https://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/16_5YR/DP05/0400000US22 (accessed June 21, 2018). Therefore, Louisiana’s prison admission rate was 350 per 100,000 people.
The Alabama Department of Corrections admitted 11,556 people to prison in its fiscal year 2016. Annual Report: Fiscal Year 2016, ALA. DEP’T OF CORRS. 48 (Apr. 18, 2017), http://www.doc.state.al.us/docs/AnnualRpts/2016AnnualReport.pdf. In 2016, Alabama had an estimated population of 4,841,164. ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates: 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates: Alabama, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, https://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/16_5YR/DP05/0400000US01 (accessed June 21, 2018). Therefore, Alabama’s prison admission rate was 239 per 100,000 people, and Louisiana’s prison admission rate was 1.47 times Alabama’s. Alabama’s fiscal year ran from October 1, 2015 through September 30, 2016, so this is not a strict comparison with Louisiana’s calendar year 2016 prison admission rate, but the Alabama DOC does not publish data delineated by calendar year. Back to report.

[10] The South Carolina Department of Corrections admitted 8,798 people to prison in its fiscal year 2016. Most Serious Offense of Inmates Admitted Fiscal Years 2013-2017, S.C. DEP’T OF CORRS. (Aug. 28, 2017), http://www.doc.sc.gov/research/AdmissionsTrend/AdmissionTrendMSODistribu.... In 2016, South Carolina had an estimated population of 4,834,605. ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates: 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates: South Carolina, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, https://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/16_5YR/DP05/0400000US45 (accessed June 21, 2018). Therefore, South Carolina’s prison admission rate was 182 per 100,000 people, and Louisiana’s prison admission rate was 1.93 times South Carolina’s. South Carolina’s fiscal year ran from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016, so this is not a strict comparison with Louisiana’s calendar year 2016 prison admission rate, but the South Carolina DOC does not publish data delineated by calendar year. Back to report.

[11] Oliver Roeder et al., What Caused the Crime Decline?, BRENNAN CTR. FOR JUSTICE 23, 33 & fig.11 (Feb. 12, 2015), https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/What_Caused_T.... Back to report.

[12] In December 2000, the Louisiana Department of Corrections had jurisdiction over 34,954 people. This number reached 40,170 by December 2012, a 14.9% increase. As of December 2017, the DOC had jurisdiction over 33,739 people. Briefing Book, supra note 9, at 3, 5-6. Back to report.

[13] Id. at 38. This figure refers only to people released from the jurisdiction of the DOC (whether housed in DOC, parish, or local facilities), not to people released from the jurisdiction of parish and local governments. Back to report.

[14] Incarcerated people 45 years old and older under DOC jurisdiction numbered 10,812 as of December 2017, when the total number of people under DOC jurisdiction was 33,739. Id. at 16. Back to report.

[15] As of December 2017, 21.6% of the 31,782 incarcerated males and 12.4% of the 1,957 incarcerated females under DOC jurisdiction had served for more than ten years, yielding approximately 7,108 of 33,739 total incarcerated people who had served for more than ten years. Id. at 17-18. Back to report.

[16] ALEX R. PIQUERO ET AL., KEY ISSUES IN CRIMINAL CAREER RESEARCH: NEW ANALYSES OF THE CAMBRIDGE STUDY IN DELINQUENT DEVELOPMENT 3 (2007) (“[T]he age of desistance from offending is typically between 20 and 29 . . . . The prevalence of offending peaks in the late teenage years: between ages 15 and 19.”); Jeffery T. Ulmer & Darrell Steffensmeier, The Age and Crime Relationship: Social Variation, Social Explanations, in THE NURTURE VERSUS BIOSOCIAL DEBATE IN CRIMINOLOGY: ON THE ORIGINS OF CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR AND CRIMINALITY 377, 377 (Kevin M. Beaver et al. eds., 2015), available at https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/60294_Chapter_2... (“Today, the peak age-crime involvement (the age group with the highest age-specific arrest rate) is younger than 25 for all crimes reported in the FBI’s UCR [Uniform Crime Reporting] program except gambling, and rates begin to decline in the late teenage years for more than half of the UCR crimes.”); From Juvenile Delinquency to Young Adult Offending, NAT’L INST. OF JUSTICE (Mar. 11, 2014), https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/Pages/delinquency-to-adult-offending.aspx (“The prevalence of offending tends to increase from late childhood, peak in the teenage years (from 15 to 19) and then decline in the early 20s.”); Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force Report and Recommendations, LA. SUPREME COURT 23 (Mar. 16, 2017), https://www.lasc.org/documents/LA_Task_Force_Report_2017_FINAL.pdf (“Given the research that shows rates of offending peak in the late teens and early 20’s, it is likely that many of these prisoners have aged out of their crime committing years.”). Back to report.

[17] Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force Report and Recommendations, supra note 16, at 23. Back to report.

[18] The Louisiana DOC reports inconsistent information on the number of people sentenced to life as of December 2017. On the one hand, it reports that 4,846, or 14.4% of all 33,739 incarcerated people, are sentenced to life. Briefing Book, supra note 9, at 16. On the other hand, it reports in the same publication that 4,871 incarcerated males and 149 incarcerated females, for a total of 5,020 people, or 14.9% of incarcerated people, are sentenced to life. Id. at 18. Back to report.

[19] According to the World Prison Brief published by the University of London’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Russia’s, Iran’s, and China’s incarceration rates are 411, 284, and 118 per 100,000 people, respectively. These estimates include people who are held in pretrial detention. Inst. for Crim. Policy Research, World Prison Brief: Russian Federation, UNIV. OF LONDON, http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/russian-federation (accessed June 22, 2018); Inst. for Crim. Policy Research, World Prison Brief: Iran, UNIV. OF LONDON, http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/iran (accessed June 22, 2018); Inst. for Crim. Policy Research, World Prison Brief: China, UNIV. OF LONDON, http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/china (accessed June 22, 2018).
To construct a similar current estimate for Louisiana that takes into account the approximately 2,000 people who were released from DOC custody in November 2017, the SPLC estimated the number of people who were held in parish and local facilities either for misdemeanor sentences or who were held in pretrial detention in December 2016 by taking the difference between the total number of adults the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported were incarcerated in Louisiana as of December 31, 2016 (45,400) and the number of people held under DOC jurisdiction as of December 2016 (35,682). Danielle Kaeble & Mary Cowhig, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS 11 app.tbl.1 (Apr. 2018), NCJ 251211, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus16.pdf (45,400 incarcerated in Louisiana as of Dec. 31, 2016); Briefing Book, supra note 9, at 6 (35,682 under DOC jurisdiction as of Dec. 2016). This estimate of the number of people held in parish and local facilities who were not under DOC jurisdiction and serving time for felonies in 2016 was 9,718. Assuming the number did not change substantially after the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (whose reforms applied mostly to people serving felony sentences under DOC jurisdiction), the SPLC then constructed an estimate of the total number of people incarcerated in Louisiana based on the most recent data available: 33,739 under DOC jurisdiction as of December 2017, 9,718 under parish or local jurisdiction as a current estimate, and 759 children under the jurisdiction of the Office of Juvenile Justice as of the first quarter of 2018. Briefing Book, supra note 9, at 6 (33,739 under DOC jurisdiction as of Dec. 2017); Vera Inst. of Justice et al., Louisiana Quarterly Juvenile Justice Indicators, LA.OFFICE OF JUVENILE JUSTICE, 1st Q. 2018, https://ojj.la.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/OJJ-Indicators-2018Q1.pdf (accessed June 22, 2018) (381 children held in secure care and 378 children held in non-secure care). These populations total 44,216 people incarcerated. Based on U.S. Census data, Louisiana’s total population in 2017 was estimated at 4,684,333. QuickFacts: Louisiana, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/la/PST045217 (accessed June 22, 2018). Together, these figures yield an estimated current incarceration rate of 944 per 100,000 people in Louisiana. Back to report.

[20] Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer, States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018, PRISON POLICY INITIATIVE (June 2018), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html. Back to report.