Our Views: A coalition on prisons

There have been many nominees worthy of note, but our choice for the oddest couple of 2013 is Marjorie Esman, of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Kevin Kane, of the Pelican Institute of Public Policy.

It’s a classic liberal and conservative pairing when the two appeared on a panel on an issue that is ripe for legislative coalition-building: prison and sentencing reform.

Across the nation, there is a similar recognition that, in the words of a spokesman for Blueprint Louisiana, the business-led reform group, “What we have been doing doesn’t seem to be working.”

The raw evidence for that conclusion: Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration. The state’s prison population doubled during the past couple of decades.

A report from a coalition of conservative think tanks, including Kane’s in New Orleans and the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, looked critically at the role of minimum sentences for specific crimes and heavy sentences for repeat offenders.

But these concerns also are reflected in statements this year from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and others worried about the costs, direct and, more broadly, societal, of a burgeoning prison population.

If all these odd couples can get together, Louisiana ought to respond with a thoughtful conversation about how to best protect the public. We see the potential for change in the way that Louisiana deals with crime as one of the significant opportunities for the 2014 session of the Legislature.

What specifically will be proposed? We don’t know yet, and it is quite correct for lawmakers and officials in the criminal justice system to be cautious in their approach. Perhaps there will be bills about the “three-strikes” laws that send repeat offenders to jail for life, even if one of the strikes was a conviction for a nonviolent offense.

Because of the large prison populations from drug offenses, it’s also likely that alternative sentences will be explored — and that leads into a discussion of whether minimum sentences are the right approach.

Yet, a third issue, arising in large part from those in prison for drug crimes, is how to reduce the high rate of inmates getting out, being unable to find and hold a legitimate job, then returning to prison.

Kane argued effectively that conservatives must be a part of this reform, in part, because of the high cost of incarceration. That is so, but at this early stage, we don’t think even significant reforms will save money. Why? Because of the burden of supervision on probation and parole officers, the state needs to look hard at spending more money there.

That’s a lot cheaper than prison, but it’s vital to public safety to make probation and parole effective. As with most government endeavors, it’s a labor-intensive business, and parole officers have unmanageably large caseloads.

As complex as all these situations are, we think there is a good chance for some meaningful change in 2014 and look forward to specific legislation that can be debated in the Legislature in the spring.