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Louisiana Survey finds strong support for criminal justice reform ahead of session

April 4, 2017
By Sam Karlin
Originally Posted on Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

A large majority of Louisianans generally support criminal justice reforms like shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes, alternatives to prison and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, according to the latest installment of the 2017 Louisiana Survey.

The findings, released this morning, come less than a week before the legislative session is set to begin, during which criminal justice reform will be debated at length. Gov. John Bel Edwards has outlined a series of reform bills that aim to rid Louisiana of its highest incarceration rate in the U.S.

The LSU study found that 75% of people favor shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes; 86% support alternatives to prison like drug treatment or rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders; and 72% want judges to have flexibility in sentencing.

But when given specifics in the survey, there was a drop off in the amount of support for reducing nonviolent sentences. When given examples of nonviolent crimes like fraud or using illegal drugs, support fell to 69%, and when asked about burglary or selling drugs, 54% supported shorter sentences.

A driving force behind Louisiana’s high incarceration rate is the state’s stiff penalties for nonviolent offenses, according to a task force that recently studied the state’s criminal justice system. Louisiana imprisons people for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes at three times the rate of Florida, although the two states have similar rates of such crime, the task force reports.

While a little over one-third of Louisiana residents think the current criminal justice system in the state is fair, there is a sizable difference between how white and black people responded, according to the survey. Among blacks, 71% do not think the current criminal justice system is fair, while 44% of whites think it is fair.

The task force report outlined key policy proposals that could reduce the state’s exorbitant prison rate. If enacted, the reforms would save the state $305 million per year, half of which would be reinvested in the criminal justice system, Edwards’ administration says. It would reduce the prison population by 13%. Last week, Edwards unveiled a broad strokes outline of the legislation, and some of the bills have since been filed.

Senate President John Alario, a key Republican who has worked closely with the governor, is carrying bills that would create a felony class system and focus habitual offender penalties on more serious crimes. Several other Democrats and Republicans will bring legislation that Edwards says will reduce recidivism and bring more alternatives to prison.

The business community this year rallied behind the long-running push to reduce the state’s incarceration rate. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and others have noted the flagging workforce that comes with a high imprisonment rate, and say they will throw their weight behind reform proposals this year.

The Louisiana Survey has been annually conducted since 2003 by the LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. Today’s release is the third of six parts of the 2017 survey that will be made public. The first part of the survey focused on Louisianans appetite for new taxes and tax increases and the second part of the survey focused on Louisianans outlook on the direction of the state. The fourth installment of the survey is expected to be released on Thursday.