Advocates for reforming prison sentences last week rolled out the same strategy for Louisiana that has worked so successfully in red states across the South.
But a backer of the idea recognizes what people learn the hard way when trying to apply a national template to this state: Louisiana does it differently.
The coalition of conservative think tanks from around the country produced a study documenting how Louisiana became the nation’s leader in throwing its residents in prison: 868 out of every 100,000 serve time.
In “tough-on-crime” states with similarly high incarceration rates — Texas, South Carolina and Georgia, to name a few — conservative policy groups joined with the business community and liberal groups to decrease harsh sentences for some crimes in hopes of reducing the cost of incarcerating so many people.
“This report is an attempt to bring people together. It does a good job explaining just the sheer science of it,” said George Steimel, a lobbyist for Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“Then there’s the reality of why we’re here in the first place and it’s because we have a poorly constructed, bifurcated correctional system,” Steimel said, which was not tackled by the study.
Other states farm out inmates to privately owned prisons or build new penitentiaries. Louisiana fills vacant spaces in parish jails: 20,838 state inmates out of a total 39,675 incarcerated people, as of Oct. 25, are doing their time on the local level.
Sheriffs are paid about $24 daily for each state prisoner. In Jefferson Parish, that comes to 35,495 “billable days,” which brought in about $837,333 in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Basically, Steimel argues, the Louisiana system has created two classes of inmates.
The ones sent to state prisons have specific needs met, such as treatment for drug abuse, anger management or finishing high school. Those ending up in local facilities often have little access to the services that might help convicted criminals change their lives.
“We do have this unique funding mechanism here that makes it costly for the sheriffs to see their inmate populations possibly decline and that’s one of the things worth looking at,” said Kevin Kane, who heads the New Orleans-based Pelican Institute for Public Policy, the local sponsor of the national study. “I’m not criticizing the sheriffs. But if you incentivize a behavior, you’re going to see more of it.”
The chief spokesman for the state’s sheriffs, Michael Ranatza, says they’re only providing a service for the state, and doing so at a much cheaper rate than building prisons or farming out incarceration to private contractors.
The executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association also says all this talk about harsh sentences should focus more on victims, rather than finances, particularly given the high rate of violent crime.
The FBI uniform crime report for 2012, released in September, shows that Louisiana is the murder capital of the United States, once again leading the nation with 10.8 murders and non-negligent manslaughters per 100,000 people. That’s about 45 percent higher than the No. 2 state, Mississippi, with a 7.4 rate.
Prosecutor Ricky Babin, of Donaldsonville, also disputes the money-maker motivation, if for no other reason than prosecutors, law enforcement, even the judge, don’t know where the convict will serve his time.
“There’s no one saying, ‘This guy is going to Ascension Parish jail and he’s a good mechanic, and they need good mechanics, so let’s give him 10 years instead of five.’ That just doesn’t happen,” said Babin, whose 23rd Judicial District Attorney’s office covers Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.
Rehabilitation is leaning more toward using work as a way to wean a convict off a life of crime, Babin said. And housing inmates locally puts them closer to the jobs, he said.
Dismantling Louisiana’s bifurcated system realistically may be a moot point.
State Rep. Patricia Smith says nothing moves in the Louisiana Legislature unless prosecutors and sheriffs are on board. Even the governor is hesitant to take on sheriffs and DAs, said Smith, who has had some success in passing bills that reduce prison time.
A better strategy might be ensuring sheriffs receive the resources necessary to provide services for the inmates.
“Maybe that’s where we have to get to,” the Baton Rouge Democrat said. “Every piece of the public safety laws that we have impacts the whole process.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.