Non-Violent Offenders Fill Jails in Prison Nation’s Worst State: Louisiana

“One out of three black men in Louisiana” under prison system.

The United States is the world’s foremost prison nation—with the highest percentage of people behind bars—and Louisiana is its capital, with the most senseless mix of lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, skyrocketing prison costs, and little evidence that its “lock ‘em up and forget ‘em” policies have reduced violence.That’s the conclusion by a coalition of libertarian groups seeking sentencing reform in the state with highest incarceration rate—especially for non-violent drug offenses—who, along with Louisiana’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, have launched a joint campaign to try to unwind one of America’s nastiest prison systems.“When the Pelican Institute and the ACLU combine on a topic, comedians may lick their chops,” wrote James Varney, a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist. “Or folks could conclude, ‘It’s time…’Time is a curious word to use when describing how terrible Louisiana’s court system is. Despite some recent attempts to give judges some discretion in sentencing non-violent offenders, decades of mandatory sentencing laws—overwhelmingly snaring the state’s African-American population—add up to years in jail. According to a Mother Jones analysis, Blacks make up 33 percent of the population, but 76 percent of prisoners.ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman told a recent sentencing forum that one-in-86 Louisiana adults are in prison—double the national average, Louisiana Weekly reported. “Esman said that one out of three black men in Louisiana are under some kind of correctional control… and the fact that Black men are more likely to go to jail for pot than white men.”“As of December 31, 2012, there were approximately 242 inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent drug and property crimes,” the “Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime” report from the Reason Foundation, Pelican Institute and Texas Public Policy Foundation said. “These laws have been disproportionately applied to non-violent crimes, nonviolent offenders now account for the majority of inmates and admissions to prison in the state.”Elsewhere in the country, the Reason Foundation has promoted privatizing prisons. But their latest report emphasized that Louisiana was wasting tax dollars and not stopping the most serious crimes.This has produced a number of unfortunate consequences, such as an increase in the state’s prison population from 21,007 in 1992 to 39,709 in 2011 and a $315 million increase in correction expenditures during the same time period, from $442.3 million (in 2011 dollars) in 1992 to $757.4 million in 2011. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that the laws have done anything to reduce Louisiana’s violent crime rate, which remains considerably above both the national average and the rates in its neighboring states. Today, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, with 868 of every 100,000 of its citizens in prison.What’s particularly eyebrow-raising is that “numerous violent crimes, such as negligent homocide, manslaughter, aggravated assault with a firearm, aggravated battery, simple rape and simple kidnapping carry no mandatory minimum at all,” Reason reported. In contrast, Louisiana law—especially drug laws—draw “essentially trivial lines between degrees of criminal activity that can result in dramatic differences in punishment.”The report offers glaring examples. Possessing 199.9 grams of cocaine has a mandatory minimum sentence of five year of hard labor plus a $50,000 fine, while possessing 200 gram doubles the time at hard labor sentence and fine. Five years of hard labor and a $50,000 fine is also the penalty for “offenders convicted of growing or selling any amount of marijuana,” it notes.The analysis goes on to describe how repeat offenders face complex sentencing formulas that add up to years, if not decades, spent in jail—often at hard labor. “To see how this works, consider a defendant who is convicted of distributing or cultivating any amount of marijuana as a first offense. She will then be subject to serve a mandatory minimum sentence of five years of hard labor in prison. If within 10 years of release, she is convicted for the same offense, she will then be required to serve a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years, which is one-half the maximum sentence prescribed for a first conviction. If within 10 years of release for this second conviction, she is again convicted of distributing or cultivating any amount of marijuana a third time as a habitual offender, she will be subject to serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 22.5 years of hard labor in prison, which is two-thirds the maximum sentence prescribed for a first conviction.”Many of Louisiana’s drug laws date back to the early 1970s when then President Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs” and states responded by enacting harsh sentences, Reason noted. In Louisiana, the result of this legacy is predictable—jails filled with people who did not commit violent crimes but are treated as harshly as rapists and murderers.“Between 1994 and 2011, violent offenders made up an average of only 17.3 percent of prison admissions in Louisiana; 37 percent of prison admissions were for drug offenses, and 33.6 percent for property offenses,” their report states. “Between 1994 and 1996, during which time the state experienced some of its highest violent crime rates, the average percentage for inmates admitted for violent crimes was 23 percent lower than those admitted for drug crimes, 18.4 percent lower than those admistted for property crimes, and 0.6 percent lower than inmates admitted for all other crimes.”These statistics mean that Lousiana’s drug and property offenders keep getting caught and throw back into the prison system’s jaws. Reason interprets the state’s high rate of recidivism as a waste of taxpayer dollars—especially for non-violent drug crimes.“With 50 percent of inmates returning to prison after five years, a violent crime rate well above its neighboring states, high corrections expenditures, and a majority of inmates incarcerated after nonviolent offenses, it makes one wonder whether Louisiana is effectively prioritizing its criminal justice expenditures,” they conclude.Reason said it was “beyond the scope of this study” to analyze why Louisiana’s violent crime rates have risen and fallen. Beyond their high cost to taxpayers, its report never mentions race or poverty as factors in the state’s court system—although it has appeared at forums with the ACLU where those factors have been raised and discussed.But it is not unreasonable to suggest that many of the state’s drug offenders are railroaded into jail, where they should never be in the first place, and then, after exiting with prison records, can’t find a decent job. Thus, they revert to dealing drugs—or theft, what the report calls property crime—to survive. There was anecdotal evidence of that pattern in Times-Picayune column. The Pelican Insititute President Kevin Kane and ACLU’s Esman have been holding forums across the state to call for sentencing reforms. Last week, they were joined by Judge Fredericka Wicker, who heads a non-partisan Louisiana Sentencing Commission. In one sessions, the Times-Picayune reported that Esman asked “the audience who among them knew someone who at one time in their life possessed marijuana. Every hand in the room went up. When she extended her question to three times, the yes answer was again 100 percent.”At that meeting, an ex-sheriff’s office employee, Republican state Representative Joseph Lopinto, told the paper’s columnist, “It’s not as if Louisiana’s jails are stuffed with guys who got pulled over three times and happened to have dime bags on the passenger seat. More common… is the burglar who got probation twice and, the third time arrested, also had marijuana and winds up getting multiple billed and facing a 30-year term.”The Reason report noted that Louisiana’s Legislature has passed and their Republican governor has signed piecemeal sentencing reforms, reducing some mandatory terms and turning to probation and parole, but only under very strident conditions. What it has not done is repeal mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, reform its Habitual Offender Law that compounds jail terms, and also reform parole rules.“Either of these changes would ensure that violent criminals continue to be punished for their crimes, while nonviolent offenders face sentences that are more proportionate,” they conclude. But those obvious steps will be difficult, the Times-Picayune notes, because “housing prisoners has become a key source of cash for politically powerful sheriffs, and elected officials fear the vulnerability attached to a soft on crime label.” Indeed, the estimated 2013-2014 budget for Louisiana’s Department of Corrections (DOC) is $390,625,856. That nearly doubles when including all the police, prosecutors and public defenders. As the Pelican Institute’s Kane noted, the DOC pays $24.39 per diem to sheriffs to warehouse prisoners, compared to $11.25 a day for the DOC’s transitional work programs, or $15.39 for locally run transitional programs.In other words, crime and punishment pays in Louisiana—not for prisoners, but for the jailers who keep them behind bars.

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