POLITICS
10/31/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Reforming The Prison Capital Of The World

Last year, the Times-Picayune published an award winning series on how Louisiana became the "prison capital of the world." The paper justified the claim this way:

The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran's, 13 times China's and 20 times Germany's.

For all the costs that come with that sort of incarceration rate -- both monetary and human -- Louisiana still has one of the highest crime rates in America.

Now, my former colleagues at the Reason Foundation have come up with a strategy to reduce the state's incarcerated population. Authors Lauren Galik and Julian Morris argue that it all comes down to sentencing reform. Like most of the rest of the country, Louisiana has spent an inordinate amount of time, money, and prison space locking up nonviolent offenders. Among the study's conclusions:

-- A large number of crimes that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences in Louisiana are drug-related and nonviolent in nature. Indeed, numerous violent crimes, such as negligent homicide, manslaughter, aggravated assault with a firearm, aggravated battery, simple rape and simple kidnapping carry no mandatory minimum sentences at all.

-- Mandatory minimum sentences create arbitrary outcomes by drawing essentially trivial lines between degrees of criminal activity that can result in dramatic differences in punishment. This happens most commonly with sentences for drug crimes, where different weights or quantities of drugs carry varying degrees of punishment. For example, possession of 199.9 grams of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years of hard labor in prison and a $50,000 fine. However, possession of 200 grams of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years of hard labor in prison and a $100,000 fine--double the punishment for a negligible 0.1 gram more of cocaine.

-- Mandatory minimum sentences, combined with restrictions on parole, probation and sentence suspension, can discourage prisoners from undertaking rehabilitation, which may explain why rates of recidivism for released drug and property offenders are much higher than for released violent offenders.

Not surprisingly, the study finds that Louisiana's sentencing laws are quite a bit worse than those at the federal level (which are already pretty bad).

-- Federal mandatory minimum sentences are generally targeted at drug kingpins, so there are no federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes for the simple possession of any drug, for example. However, low-level offenders convicted of possession of a small amount of drugs are routinely sentenced to serve mandatory minimum sentences for several years in Louisiana. - See more at: http://reason.org/studies/show/sentencing-reforms-louisiana#sthash.CxAuRfed.dpuf

The study recommends a major overhaul of the state's sentencing laws.

While we're making a wish list, Louisiana legislators might also look at reforming the way the state bar handles prosecutorial misconduct, and keeping quack forensics out of Louisiana courtrooms.

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