I began my career as an Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans where I prosecuted violent offenders and drug traffickers. I was proud of the work that I did there and I continue to benefit from the education I received in those courtrooms. But the lesson that stuck with me the most is that, although we’ve been tough on crime, we haven’t been smart on crime.
In Louisiana, we somehow ended up with the highest incarceration rate in the world for several years, but still struggle with public safety and recidivism. We were in the habit of sending more and more nonviolent offenders to prison while at the same time cutting funding for effective prison alternatives, programs that reduce recidivism and services to support victims. Our spending on Corrections ballooned to nearly $700 Million annually and our crime rates weren’t improving.
In 2015, determined to find solutions that were evidence-based, I created the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Task Force. Through the Task Force, we built an unprecedented, bipartisan coalition to get criminal justice reform done-including a wide range of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, business leaders, conservative groups, victim advocacy groups, sheriffs, district attorneys. And the list goes on. We worked together, we gathered facts, and we came to informed conclusions that resulted in a final legislative package that finally passed. This was no easy task. Criminal justice reform is personal to everyone. It is personal to the families of those victimized and the families of those convicted. But because of the courage of the Task Force and my colleagues, it put us on the path to a smarter and safer future.
The reforms we passed focused on:
- Saving prison beds for those who pose a serious threat to society
- Strengthening community supervision
- Clearing barriers to reentry
- Reinvesting savings back into the system
My legislation, Act 261, is the namesake of the Task Force. It is the reinvestment piece-the most important piece. It sounds cold and clinical when we talk about a better return on our investment, but it’s actually the heartbeat, because we are talking about investing in our people. Act 261 directs money saved by reforms back into public safety in the form of prison alternatives, drug courts, victim services, counseling programs, substance abuse and mental health treatment and juvenile justice. Act 261 allows us to invest more in our people-and the return is a better quality of life for everyone.
The hope is that the impact of these reforms will be plentiful. In just a few short months of implementation, we have already dropped to the second most incarcerated state in the country and we have seen the following results:
- $13.75 million in savings
- The number of people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses had dropped 20%
- The majority of prison population now incarcerated on a violent offense was down to 48% in comparison to 53% in the fourth quarter of 2017
- Prison population had dropped 7.6%
- Prison admissions were down 7.4%
- Drug possession admissions are down
However, we are not done yet. Now that we are starting to realize savings, we have to make sure that they are used appropriately and efficiently. The Governor has announced that $1.7 million will be awarded to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Criminal Justice for Victims’ services. In addition, the Department of Corrections is in the process of reviewing contract and grant applications to partner with community-based organizations and nonprofits around the state who are delivering services to victims of crime, people returning to the community from prison, and those seeking mental health and substance abuse treatment. It’s still too soon to measure recidivism on those who were released early, but providing them with the programming and supportive services they need will help mitigate rising recidivism rates.
In addition, we need to consider the issue of housing for recent releases. This is particularly a problem in New Orleans since we do not have a strong network of halfway houses. Finally, we had to put the majority of sentencing reform on hold, despite the fact that the number one recommendation of the Task Force was to create a felony class system instead of the convoluted system we currently have. This is an issue that is vital to the success of criminal justice reform in Louisiana.
Criminal Justice reform is an ongoing commitment that will require continuous work and consensus. We need our strong, bipartisan coalition to keep working together to make sure that the intent behind the reforms becomes the reality.