Prison Capital of the Universe

Dr. Sue Weishar, PhD 

Louisiana is the prison capital of the known universe. The Pelican State incarcerates more of its residents per capita than any other state, in a country that leads the world in incarceration rates. Louisiana’s incarceration rate of 816 inmates per 100,000 residents is almost twice the national average,[1] three times Brazil’s, seven times China’s, and ten times Germany’s.[2] The impact of Louisiana’s bloated and costly criminal justice system on African American communities has been particularly devastating. One in 20 African American adult males in Louisiana is incarcerated, a rate exceeded by only six states. Although only 32 percent of Louisiana’s population is Black, 67.8 percent of its prison population is Black, the second highest proportion of Black inmates in the U.S. (Maryland is first).[3] The state is in dire financial straits, yet Louisiana spends an astronomical amount of money on its criminal justice system: almost $700 million a year,[4] with poor returns—42.5 percent of offenders return to state custody in five years.[5] Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on schools, hospitals, and coastal restoration. The status quo of Louisiana as the “Incarceration Capital of the World” is financially unsustainable and morally unacceptable. Fortunately, major change is within reach.

In June, 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards convened the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a bi-partisan group of cross-sector criminal justice experts and stakeholders and charged them with taking a hard look at what is working and what is broken in Louisiana. Evidence presented to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force at five public hearings held between June 2016 and November 2016 has clearly shown that policy choice— not crime—explain Louisiana’s obscenely high incarceration rates. While other Southern states have crime rates similar to Louisiana’s, Louisianans are sent to prison for nonviolent offenses at much higher rates. Indeed, the top ten most common crimes that land someone in prison in Louisiana are all nonviolent, and the most common by far is possession of drugs.6 Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force was advised by criminal justice reform experts with the Pew Charitable Trusts as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). The JRI is a public-private partnership that includes the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Pew Charitable Trust, Vera Institute for Justice, and other organizations.