The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center in downtown Lafayette, La. By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, but sentencing reformers have loosened some of the state’s mandatory minimum sentences and made parole slightly easier to get.
Denny Culbert for NPR
Some red states like Louisiana and Texas have emerged as leaders in a new movement: to divert offenders from prisons and into drug treatment, work release and other incarceration alternatives.
By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. In recent years, sentencing reformers in the capital, Baton Rouge, have loosened some mandatory minimum sentences and have made parole slightly easier for offenders to get.
But as reformers in Louisiana push for change, they’re also running into stiffening resistance — especially from local prosecutors.
It’s all happening as the number of Americans behind bars has started to decline. There are multiple reasons for that, including crime rates that have been dropping since the 1990s, as well as the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2011 requirement that tough-on-crime California reduce its prison population.
And there’s another factor: a growing bipartisan consensus for sentencing reform. Local politicians are getting political cover for those efforts from conservative groups like Right on Crime.
“It is a growing consensus on the right that this is the direction we want to be going,” says Kevin Kane, of the libertarian-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana. “Most people will point to, ‘Well, it’s saving money, and that’s all conservatives care about.’ But I think it goes beyond that.”
Kane says libertarians are interested in limiting the government’s power to lock people away, while the religious right likes the idea of giving people a shot at redemption — especially when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders.
Still, not everyone is embracing these ideas. In some places, there’s been considerable pushback — especially when the idea of eliminating prison time for drug offenders arises.
Pushback In Louisiana
In Lafayette, La., the sheriff’s department has reinvented its approach to drug offenders. Marie Collins, a counselor by trade, runs the department’s treatment programs. She estimates at least 80 percent of the people in the parish jail got there because of substance abuse.
Marie Collins, a Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office counselor, estimates at least 80 percent of the people in the parish jail got there because of substance abuse.
Denny Culbert for NPR
“The concept of, ‘Let’s lock them up and throw away the key,’ does nothing for society and does nothing for us, because you haven’t taught them anything,” she says.
So there’s counseling offered inside this jail. The sheriff’s staff is also constantly scanning the jail’s population for nonviolent inmates it can releaseearly into the appropriate programs on the outside.
One option is the Acadiana Recovery Center right next door, a treatment program run by Collins and the sheriff’s department — though the staffers play down their connection to law enforcement. In fact, you can seek treatment there even if you’ve never been arrested.
“If we can be proactive and provide the treatment before they get to jail, it’ll actually cost us less money,” Collins says.
Arguments like that are making headway at the state level. But reformers in Baton Rouge are also experiencing pushback. By most counts, the state has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and there’s a traditional preference for long sentences.
The state’s prison population is also hard for lawmakers to ignore. Under guard and dressed in gray jumpsuits marked “offender,” inmates work at the capitol building, emptying wastebaskets and serving food in the cafeteria.
Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they’ve made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana’s stiff penalties for possession of marijuana.
Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing.
“The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full … of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill,” she says.
The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls “the courthouse crowd” — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it’s understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.
“So when you’re making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?” Mangham says.
But the district attorneys’ opposition is more complex — and interesting. And it’s emblematic of a growing conflict that’s taking place nationally between sentencing reformers and prosecutors.
The Issue: Leverage
The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don’t. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and ’90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors’ hands when bargaining with defendants.
“For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone’s head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want,” says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.