Sunday, May 20, 2012

Louisiana considers CJS reform in face of budget crunch

Louisiana has the highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. In the past two decades, the state's prison population has more than doubled, with one of every 86 residents serving time.

Even as prison populations have strained the state budget and prompted fiscal conservatives to join liberals in calling for changes, the political calculus in Louisiana has evolved slowly since a series of tough sentencing laws in the 1970s, '80s and '90s bloated the state's inmate counts, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

If anything, the balance has remained tilted toward law enforcement. After a prison-building boom in the 1990s, Louisiana sheriffs now house more than half of inmates serving state time -- by far the nation's highest percentage in local prisons. Their financial stake in the prison system means they will lose money if sentences are shortened. They typically house the same drug pushers, burglars and other nonviolent offenders who will be the likely targets of any serious efforts to change the system.

"The three easiest votes for a legislator are against taxes, against gambling and to put someone in jail for the rest of their lives," said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, a veteran policymaker who has led the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate.As in other states, an increasingly dire budget situation means that interest groups are feeling pressure to tone down their agendas and support cost-saving measures.

The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association decided not to take a position this year, despite opposing last year's good-time measure. Sheriffs are mindful of the state's financial problems, even as their top priority continues to be public safety, said Michael Ranatza, the group's executive director.

"In these economic times, we're generally understanding of the plight of the state of Louisiana," Ranatza said. "We want to be good statesmen, and we're aware of the tremendous economic woes."

District attorneys, who opposed key aspects of last year's parole bill, decided they could live with this year's version after the minimum time served was adjusted down to 33 percent of a second-time offender's sentence, rather than the 25 percent originally proposed. Sex offenders and habitual felons would not be eligible for the early parole.

"If somebody appropriate for parole happens to qualify, and we save money and do it without risk to public safety, that's a great thing," said Adams of the District Attorneys Association. "The budget is shrinking. If we can save money without increasing risk, we're open to these kinds of things."

Steimel attributes the gains in the 2012 legislative session to several factors. Last year was an election year, making everyone -- sheriffs, district attorneys, legislators -- wary of rocking the boat. This year, a fresh crop of lawmakers is getting its bearings in Baton Rouge and may be more open to a different way of thinking. And there are the fiscal pressures making voters more likely to accept giving criminals a break if dollars can be saved.

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