Sunday, February 24, 2013

Louisiana Prison Reform still faces huge obstacles

Louisiana prison reform will take bolder approaches than we've seen: Jarvis DeBerry

(Gallery by Scott Threlkeld, The Times-Picayune)
Jarvis DeBerry, | The Times-Picayune By Jarvis DeBerry, | The Times-Picayune
on February 24, 2013
In 2011 state Rep. Joe Lopinto of Metairie proposed reducing the time Louisiana's nonviolent prisoners had to serve from 46 percent of their sentences to 40 percent. Lopinto's bill was projected to save our state a quarter of a billion dollars in 10 years. But Louisiana's sheriffs, whose wealth rises with the prison population, were loath to let money walk out the door. The Louisiana Sheriff's Association's opposition to Lopinto's good idea killed it.
It hasn't been all defeat. Last year Gov. Jindal signed a bill by Rep. Patricia Smith that gives lifers who haven't committed violent crimes or sex crimes a shot at parole. Good news, but it highlights just how backward we are in the first place: dispensing life sentences to nonviolent criminals. That fact and the sheriffs' opposition to Lopinto's 2011 proposal undercut the argument that the state's infatuation with prisons keeps the rest of us safe. As this newspaper's "Louisiana Incarcerated" series noted last year, housing prisoners is big business in Louisiana. But God bless those legislators who are working to steer us onto a more humane path.
Lopinto will be back this legislative session with another bill designed to move Louisiana away from its embarrassing distinction as the world's most enthusiastic jailer. Gov. Bobby Jindal held a press conference announcing proposed prison reform in the foyer of the Governor's Mansion Feb. 15, and Lopinto's bill to thin the ranks of people locked up for getting high was presented as a centerpiece of the new proposals. It would expand drug court programs to decrease the number of drug offenders going to jail and provide limited opportunities for early release for some who are already there.
If a person's only crime is mentally escaping - smoking, snorting or injecting something that provides a temporary thrill - I doubt most people will object to that person's early release. But it wasn't opposition from the people that doomed the 2011 legislation. It was opposition from the sheriffs who are profiting from the people's imprisonment. Will they be any more amenable this time to letting harmless folks out of jail?
Maybe they will because Lopinto's new bill seems a lot more modest than some of his previous attempts at reform. Consider the conditions prisoners applying for early release have to meet. They must be either first- or second-time non-violent drug offenders. They're ineligible if they've been convicted of sex crimes. They can't be let out if they haven't been confined at least two years, and they can't be let out if they have more than a year remaining on their sentence. Then they have to participate in a 90-day detoxification program before they can be let go.
Its narrower focus may increase the bill's probability of getting passed, but it decreases its potential to make a real dent in our state's prison population. Lopinto deserves credit for sticking with prison reform as an issue, even as he and other lawmakers have been forced to address the problem incrementally. However, it seems obvious that small steps aren't going to shed us of our label as the world leader in incarceration. That won't happen until we make bold steps, and we won't make bold steps until we are properly sickened at the idea of our sheriffs profiting from keeping human beings in cages.
How long will Louisiana keep its status as the world leader in incarceration?
Some students at Xavier University are reading "Louisiana Incarcerated" as part of their freshman seminar class. I met with them earlier this month to discuss their thoughts on Louisiana's big problem. One student rightly noted how powerful our sheriffs are. So, he asked, what can students such as himself possibly do to change anything? To rid this country of segregation, I told him, students his age and younger went up against sheriffs and police chiefs, governors, at times the whole establishment. His classmate chimed in that their only strength is numbers. If enough of them publicly objected to what's happening, couldn't they be effective?
The problem, though, is that not enough of us have expressed our anger at the human rights crisis that is happening in our midst. So the sheriffs feel emboldened to oppose humane and common-sense efforts to reduce our prison population, and our lawmakers are forced into taking small, but mostly symbolic steps.
Those profiting from housing prisoners shouldn't be expected to let go of that money blithely. They will have to be demanded to let it go - not by individual lawmakers here and there but by a people who cannot tolerate this outrage.

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