BATON ROUGE, La. — Advocates including the ACLU are applauding the state legislature’s approval of a series of measures that will result in an estimated 10 percent reduction in the state’s prison population over the next ten years, calling the reforms a major step forward in a state that currently incarcerates more people per capita than any other in the United States and the world. The measures, which are headed to Gov. Jon Bel Edwards for signing, is the culmination of a yearlong effort on behalf of advocates, organizations, and lawmakers from across the political spectrum to finally begin transforming a system that has long been broken and in need of an overhaul.
“These measures represent landmark reform to Louisiana’s broken criminal justice system and a major step forward in reducing a prison population in a state that incarcerates more of its people than anywhere else in the country,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “These reforms don’t just reduce the jail and prison population, they reunite families, and ultimately strengthen our communities. Is there more work to do? Yes. Our system is complex resulting from centuries of bad policies. These reforms have us moving in the right direction and create the momentum needed to truly make our justice system fair.
“This is an important moment for our state, and we were proud to work with so many lawmakers, advocates across the political spectrum, and Louisianans impacted by this system to pass these substantial reforms that will have a real, positive impact on people’s lives.”
The measures emerged from the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Taskforce, which was launched last year, and is backed by research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Each bill addresses various challenges plaguing the system, which ultimately have led to a system that has created a devastating cycle of incarceration, particularly for poor people and communities of color. The measures address various elements of the system including sentencing reform, expanding parole opportunities and improving reentry policies.
The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice – an unprecedented, nationwide, multi-year effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system – along with the ACLU of Louisiana, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Voice of the Experience co-founded the Louisianans for Prison Alternatives coalition, and worked with bipartisan groups, business organizations, and lawmakers.
"Washington should take note of Louisiana’s actions, as well as the actions of other states, in advancing meaningful criminal justice reform with strong bipartisan legislative and voter support,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Louisiana’s actions are an important first step to reforming the state’s criminal justice system. The legislature is not off the hook and additional reforms are still needed, but these measures represent a key moment in the larger push to end mass incarceration in the United States. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and in the world, and is one of the most important battlegrounds for the longer fight for truly advancing justice. As the federal government sprints backwards on this critical issue, reverting back to policies that have failed for 40 years, the states are leading the way in building stronger communities and families.”
In collaboration with Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, ACLU supporters from across the state placed thousands of phone calls and sent thousands of emails to state lawmakers calling for reforms, and hundreds came out to rallies and to lobby lawmakers.
Governor Jon Bel Edwards has been a leader on criminal justice reform and advocates believe he will sign the bills into law once they reach his desk.
Among the reforms included in the series of measures are:
- Reducing and eliminating mandatory minimums
- Raising the weight and monetary thresholds on drug and property offenses
- Reducing habitual offender penalties
- Expanding parole eligibility
- Strengthening reentry by increasing opportunities for professional licensing and access to public benefits
- Expanding drug offense diversion and substance use disorder probation eligibility, so more people in need of treatment are not imprisoned due to addiction
- Creating a medical treatment furlough program
- Tailoring fines and fees to a person’s ability to pay and creating debt forgiveness for those who make consistent payments
- Eliminating incarceration or driver’s license suspension for failure to pay fines and fees if the person was unable to pay (as opposed to willfully refusing to pay)
- Reinvesting 70% of the savings from prison population reduction into prison alternatives, programs that reduce recidivism, and services that support victims of crime
The ACLU will continue to fight for reforms to end mass incarceration in Louisiana, including for an end to the inhumane practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole.