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Riegel: Rethinking our Approach to Criminal Justice

November 15, 2016
By Stephanie Riegel

During his first year in office, Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry were frequently at odds over balancing the budget and raising taxes. But in a refreshing show of unity, the two are in lock step on at least one issue of critical importance to every citizen in Louisiana, and they’re working together to address it.

The issue is the state’s criminal justice system. It’s broken and needs fixing. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation—816 per 100,000 residents—yet our crime rates continue to climb. We spend as much on incarceration—roughly $700 million a year—as we do on higher education. And yet, our recidivism rate is among the worst in the nation.

We’re locking up two and three times as many nonviolent offenders as are fellow Southern states like South Carolina and Florida. But our crime rates are equal to theirs—or higher.

In other words, there is a fundamental disconnect between how our cash-strapped state is spending its limited resources in the criminal justice arena and the results we’re getting for it. We’re wasting money and lives by locking up people who don’t really need to be behind bars, then failing to give them the mental health treatment, basic life skills training or job counseling they need to be productive members of society. Meanwhile, truly dangerous offenders are periodically released from prison because we don’t have enough space to keep them incarcerated.

Earlier this year, making good on a campaign promise, Edwards created a commission to tackle this issue and come up with specific recommendations to bring to the Legislature in early 2017. The panel is called the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, and it includes a broad cross section of representatives who are using a data-driven approach to study what is working in other states and what might work here.

It may not come as a surprise that other states—including peer red states like Mississippi—are ahead of us in this area and are now reaping the benefits of changes and investments they made in their criminal justice system several years ago. Once again we’re behind the curve. But it’s better late to the table than never, and Louisiana now has an opportunity to correct some long overdue problems. It’s important that we get it right.

You might expect a Democratic administration to take on an issue like this. What makes this effort particularly noteworthy is that LABI and other business groups are not only supporting it, but advocating for it. They have come to understand that changing the way we spend our criminal justice dollars—reinvesting in the system in new and different ways—saves money and improves the ROI and the quality of life for everyone in the state.

It’s also important to understand that justice reinvestment does not mean going soft on crime. Though Edwards’ opponent in last year’s ugly gubernatorial runoff, David Vitter, threatened that Edwards would unleash “thousands of dangerous thugs” into Louisiana neighborhoods, nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, the experience of other states shows that doing things like requiring risk-needs assessments of nonviolent offenders, improving interventions for substance abuse and mental health, and implementing re-entry programs makes streets safer, not more dangerous.

South Carolina, which has reduced its prison population by 20% since 2010, has seen its crime rate decrease more than 12%. Georgia, which has reduced its prison population by 9.5% since 2012, has reduced its crime rate by 3.5%. South Dakota, which has reduced its prison population by 9% since 2013,  has seen its crime rate fall 8% during the same period.

There are several reasons why businesses should care about this issue. Among them: spending tax dollars more effectively and efficiently, getting a better ROI on public investment, and reducing crime.

But there are also practical reasons the business community should care about keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison and reducing recidivism rates. Our state has a workforce shortage, and employers need employees who can read, write, stay off drugs and possess good soft skills. Experience in other states has shown that through a variety of training and re-entry programs, the population of nonviolent offenders can be successfully trained and put to work.

Later this month, LABI is sponsoring a half-day Criminal Justice Reform Summit, which will bring together experts in the field to discuss their insights and success stories from other states. (As a disclaimer, I am moderating one of the panels). The event is intended to make the business community and others in the general public aware of the issue, the work the governor’s task force is doing, and the importance of supporting this effort when bills go before the Legislature next spring.

Getting such measures passed, whatever form they ultimately take, won’t be easy. Lawmakers will have a lot on their plate, and they’ll face pressure from special interest groups like sheriffs—who house a lot of state prisoners in their local jails and therefore have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo—and tea party types, who will accuse moderates and Democrats of being soft on crime.

It’s important for the business community to become educated on the issue and stand up to political pandering. Data shows that criminal justice reform works. There’s no reason Louisiana can’t get this one right.

You can find more information on the summit—which will be held from 8 a.m. to noon on Thursday, Nov. 17, at the Crowne Plaza—and register to attend on LABI’s website.