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Toward Sensible Reforms 

The state is now at the most crucial point of prison reform: implementation.

Currently, Louisiana's prison system consumes nearly 1 of every 10 dollars in the state's general fund. Percentage-wise, that's a lot more than most other states are spending on prisons, but we're not seeing a higher level of public safety. There is some good news, however, mostly on the juvenile side and mostly because of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003. At the end of January, Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced that the state's juvenile prisons -- currently run out of the Department of Correction's Office of Youth Development -- would be carved out of DOC. The juvenile facilities will now be run by a separate, independent entity that reports directly to the governor's office.

Efforts last year by the Juvenile Justice Commission -- headed by Mitch Landrieu, now lieutenant governor -- prompted Blanco's announcement. In many ways, the shift can be seen as a capstone on a year of statewide juvenile justice accomplishments. Last year, Gov. Mike Foster signed into law Act 1225, better known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003. The act, among other things, closes the Tallulah prison by the end of 2004 and puts the focus on rehabilitating delinquent kids instead of locking them up -- often inappropriately -- and releasing them in worse shape than before.

The state is now at the most crucial point: implementation. Without small, home-like facilities and skilled, highly trained staff, Louisiana could once again risk the kind of cruelty and chaos seen at the Tallulah youth prison. Witness what happened in mid-2001, after the state Legislature passed adult prison and sentencing reform. At the time, state officials and observers nationwide predicted the reforms would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in corrections spending. The bill eliminated mandatory minimums for a number of crimes and set up risk review panels that were to review -- and if possible, parole -- inmates who had been convicted of similar charges in the past. But the measure fell short in implementation. The risk review panels ultimately released far fewer people than expected, and the corrections budget has continued to rise -- to more than $667 million for fiscal year 2004.

Other states have recently implemented prison reforms with markedly different results. As a result of reforms in Ohio, that state's prisons cut the total number of inmates by 10 percent. In Michigan, a Republican governor and Legislature passed dramatic prison reform. Across the nation, more than 25 states have now passed or implemented prison reforms -- partly in response to each state's fiscal crisis. As Texas legislator Ray Allen explained in a recent roundtable: "It is no longer fiscally possible, no matter how conservative you are, to incarcerate people and spend $150,000 each on them when a fraction of that will get them free of their habit and in productive society."

Legislators like Allen are looking for ways to spend corrections money more efficiently -- while still protecting the public from violent offenders. In fact, most of this nation's inmates are not violent. Nearly three out of four juvenile and two out of three adult inmates held in the state of Louisiana are nonviolent property or drug offenders. But they're currently taking up expensive prison beds -- instead of going to school, working, paying taxes, and supporting and raising their children.

The current approach, mostly the result of decades-old "get tough on crime" laws, does not work. The public knows this well, especially for youthful offenders, as shown by a 2003 survey conducted by the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL). CABL's results showed that nearly three out of four Louisiana residents believed that rehabilitation was less expensive in the long run than jail, and that prison time should be reserved for violent youth. Recent nationwide surveys show that the public now also holds these same views about adults, a point especially pertinent in Louisiana, which locks up more adults per capita than any other state in the nation.

Currently, Louisiana is spending $68,313 for each juvenile at Tallulah. That is the most extreme example of wasted tax dollars and, worst of all, wasted human potential. Moreover, the recidivism rate -- repeat offenses and convictions -- for Louisiana's released juveniles hovers near 70 percent. Other states, including Missouri, are spending less and seeing recidivism rates in single digits.

Louisiana now has the potential to make critical steps in prison reform. Our state leaders -- particularly the state Legislature, Landrieu and Blanco -- deserve credit for their work on juvenile justice reforms. Those same leaders must now work even harder to protect those reforms and ensure that they receive the needed support and personnel. In addition, as other states are demonstrating, prison reform efforts should include those older than 18. Specifically, Louisiana should establish a highly qualified sentencing and corrections commission to compare our system with better models in other states. We have made great strides in the area of juvenile justice. Now it's time to build a Public Safety and Corrections Department that protects public safety AND rehabilitates nonviolent offenders -- without unnecessarily long terms (and higher costs) of incarceration.


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