Mark Ballard: How the Louisiana Legislature is slowly changing on criminal justice issues

Will Harrell, a criminal justice warrior at the State Capitol, scolded himself last week for thinking he saw a sea change in the traditional tough-on-crime stance that has made Louisiana a world leader for incarcerating its population. What he really had seen was a brief calm in the eye of the storm.

Still, Harrell, a lawyer for Voice of the Experienced, says the respite indicates that the Legislature is moving past the era of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” laws.

Legislation that tweaks the way Louisiana punishes criminal offenders moved in relative obscurity during a session where attention focused on Democrats refusing to help change the state’s taxing system as long as a legislator who alluded to the “good of slavery” remained chair of the House Education committee.

In 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a comprehensive criminal justice revamp aimed at reducing the number of inmates serving long prison terms. That system cost nearly $1 billion a year, and did little more than create conditions that increased the likelihood of people returning to prison shortly after release. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been dropping since, but the state still has the highest rate in the nation and much of the world with 680 per 100,000 residents imprisoned, according to the Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. That’s more than Rwanda (511), more than Cuba (510), more than Russia and Nicaragua put together.

Voice of the Experienced is a New Orleans-based group of formerly incarcerated people whose advocates are seen by the dozens in blue “VOTE” T-shirts at committee hearings and in the halls outside the chambers. They’re pushing to eliminate inconsistencies in laws, mostly enacted during the 1980s and 1990s “War on Crime,” that keep Louisiana’s incarceration rates high.

One key bill, after much negotiation and many iterations, would turn… Continue Reading Full Story >>>

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