Louisiana imprisons more of its own citizens, per-capita, than any other state in the country. But are the people of Louisiana so much more dangerous than people who live in all the states along its borders — more than in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama? Should its per-capita incarceration rate really be three times higher than the rate in New York? Or is our state’s rate of confinement too high?

And if it’s true — as Governor John Bel Edwards, many corrections officials, and legislators on both sides of the aisle now say it is — that our state’s confinement rate is too high, why did taxpayers spend nearly $700 million last year to keep all those people incarcerated?

Louisianans pay so much for their huge prison population that James LeBlanc, Secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Corrections, has said that the state has got to find another way to deal with crime.

“You cannot build your way out of crime,” he said, in a 2012 interview with The Times-Picayune. “It just doesn’t work that way. You can’t afford that. Nobody can afford that.”

How did Louisiana get into this situation? During the 1970s and 80s, poll after poll showed that the American public’s number-one concern was crime. The U.S. Congress responded to that concern by appropriating money for states to build prisons. But in order to get that money, states had to pass “truth in sentencing” laws that required convicts to serve the full length of their sentences, minus time for good behavior — an incentive that was necessary for maintaining control of prison populations.

Louisiana’s legislature responded, increasing penalties for some crimes, adopting mandatory minimum sentencing, and passing new criminal laws. The state also adopted a system for charging defendants with prior convictions as “multiple offenders,” which increased statutory maximum punishments.

What also contributed to Louisiana’s rapidly increasing incarceration rate was a new set of drug laws. In the 1980s a multitude of new “controlled dangerous substances” started appearing on the social scene, especially among young people. Louisiana adopted the philosophy that harsh penalties would deter drug use.

That philosophy didn’t work. The state’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since 1978, from about 200 inmates to 800+ inmates per 100,000 people in the population. The average confinement rate for each of the states surrounding Louisiana is approximately 600 per 100,000 people in the population.

Today, many legislators and law enforcement officers are saying that the state cannot go on this way, spending so much money on its corrections system, and losing so many of its potentially productive citizens to it.

So what can Louisiana do? As executive counsel to Governor Mike Foster from 2000 to 2004, I considered this question and studied a range of answers to it. I found that most experts agree that the worst time to impose an appropriate sentence is immediately after a defendant has pleaded guilty, or a jury has returned a guilty verdict. Too little reliable information is available to judge what effect confinement will have on whether or not a defendant is rehabilitated. Identical twins who have committed identical crimes together may each respond differently to prison, one with increased antisocial behavior and the other with remorse and conformity.

Ultimately, the Foster administration promoted a statutory methodology whereby an inmate was released based not only on his sentence, but on a proper measurement of his risk to himself and to society — in other words, whether an inmate has been rehabilitated.

In order to measure rehabilitation, a new law created risk-review panels composed of a retired district judge, a psychologist or psychiatrist, the sheriff of the parish in which the crime was committed, the warden of the facility at which the inmate was confined, and a representative of the Department of Corrections, or their designees. These panels seemed to be making some headway in solving Louisiana’s mass incarceration problems, but the law that created them was repealed during the Jindal administration.

I would suggest that the Louisiana State Legislature consider enacting a similar statutory methodology, once again, in the hopes of decreasing Louisiana’s incarceration rate and the abundant costs associated therewith.

Author: Bernie E. Boudreaux, Jr.