Gov. John Bel Edwards says reducing prison population a priority in 2017 session

Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to present a comprehensive legislative package for the Legislature’s 2017 session to reduce the state’s prison population.

“We can substantially reduce the incarceration rate here while improving public safety,” he told a group of corrections leaders meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday. “I believe we have a lot of work to do.”

Edwards, a Democrat, was sworn in as governor Jan. 11. He has made the state budget crisis his priority for 2016 legislative sessions.

But his comments to the American Correctional Association’s Winter Conference indicated he’s already looking at priorities beyond his first year.

Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, with more than 38,000 offenders behind bars. The rate was about 1,380 prisoners for every 100,000 people in 2014 — higher than any other state, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

On the campaign trail, Edwards often noted that he would support efforts to pare back the prison population so Louisiana could rid itself of the dubious distinction of having the nation’s highest rate.

The state spends nearly $350 million a year on prisons.

The Legislature has grappled with the issue for several years, slowly winnowing away some of the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements implemented decades ago.

During the American Correctional Association address Tuesday, Edwards noted that high incarceration hasn’t led to the state having lower crime rates than states with lower prison populations.

“Having the highest incarceration rate isn’t leading to safer streets and communities,” Edwards told the crowd to applause.

Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the governor has not yet named an advisory panel that will help shape his 2017 legislative package over the coming year.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who gave the keynote address to the corrections group, touted the successes that re-entry programs that promote work skills and education can have for prisoners and stressed President Barack Obama’s administration’s commitment to reducing incarceration rates and recidivism.

Lynch also reiterated the Obama administration’s announcement this week that it will ban solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.

“In the interest of ensuring their ability to succeed, we are ending this practice once and for all,” Lynch said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .

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