Louisiana shouldn't be known for locking people away

By  The Editorial Board, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Louisiana is infamous for locking up more people per capita than any other place in the world. The state's devotion to long sentences for even nonviolent offenders has divided families unnecessarily and cost Louisiana valuable resources that could go to education, health care or other services.

Our state has the highest percentage of inmates serving life sentences without a chance of parole. Some of those inmates have never been convicted of a violent crime. That approach essentially discards people who might be rehabilitated, impoverishes families and drains the state budget. An offender who begins a life sentence in his 20s who lives to be at least 70 will cost the state roughly $1 million to incarcerate.

Of course, criminals who commit violent acts deserve serious punishment. But Louisiana routinely imprisons people who've committed minor nonviolent crimes. Many of them are held in local jails, where they get little or no rehabilitation. These inmates return to their communities with no skills and a criminal record and have little chance of getting a job. That makes it far more likely they will end up back in jail.

Despite this bleak situation, state leaders have shown little interest in comprehensive reform. Thankfully, that seems to be changing.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is making prison reform a priority. He persuaded legislators this year to "ban the box" on state job applications for unclassified positions. Under the new law, applicants no longer have to disclose felony convictions on their employment application. Checking that criminal history box can eliminate an otherwise qualified candidate without even a chance of competing for the job.

As the world leader in incarceration, Louisiana has thousands of ex-inmates who need to find jobs to support themselves and their families. Making it easier for them to find employment could help keep them from returning to prison.

Gov. Edwards has set a goal of reducing the state prison population by 5,000 inmates during this four-year term. And he seems to be gaining ground with some important supporters.

His Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc is crisscrossing the state to talk about ways to lower the state prison population. Last week, he made his pitch to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. LABI in the past had opposed "ban the box" legislation but didn't fight it this year.

John Finan, LABI's board chairman for 2016, is interested in reforms such as reducing the length of sentences and finding alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. He is president and CEO of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, a religious organization, which he said has influenced his priorities.

The conservative Family Forum could be another important ally on prison reforms. The group helped push the "ban the box" legislation through the Legislature.

"We know that our prison population is too high," said Republican state Rep. Rick Edmunds, a minister from Baton Rouge who is allied with Family Forum. "I think we have some common ground here."

Gov. Edwards is planning to release his reform package in March, and the details will determine how much support he is able to pull together. Sheriffs who make money holding state inmates in their jails aren't likely to favor anything that reduces their share of prisoners. But that shouldn't drive sentencing policy.