Louisiana has been competing with Oklahoma and Mississippi for the nation’s highest incarceration rate for years. While the state currently holds first place, that may not last long considering two things.
One is the Criminal Justice Reform measures signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2017 which focused on steering less serious offenders away from prison while strengthening alternatives to imprisonment. The bills also reduced prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in their community and removes barriers that make it harder for ex-felons to re-enter society.
The other factor likely to impact Louisiana’s prison system is something entirely different: the coronavirus pandemic. Louisiana has been one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19, and the potential for the deadly virus spreading through prisons — infecting not just inmates but corrections officers and other staff – – may start leading to an increased number of inmates being released early.
Why are Incarceration Rates So High in Louisiana?
Once called the “world’s prison capital,” Louisiana has been imprisoning more people per capita than any other state or country in the world, with an incarceration rate 10 times higher than Germany’s. Several reasons have been cited for this.
Half of Louisiana’s inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs, which are for-profit jails since the sheriffs receive roughly $25 a day per inmate in state money. In some cases, the sheriffs outsource the prisons to for-profit companies who then operate the prisons independently, also for a profit.
Louisiana also has some of the harshest prison sentences in the nation and leads this country in the percentage of inmates serving life without parole. Louisiana also exceeds the national average for the number of nonviolent offenders who end up behind bars.
Louisiana has a huge budget for its state prisons — more than $600 million. That means the state is spending more to ensure inmates can remain incarcerated for longer periods of time. That also means the state has an aging prison population that requires increased health care.
What is the Louisiana Legislature Doing About Prison Reform?
Change finally started to happen in June 2017, when Gov. Edwards signed into law the most comprehensive criminal justice reform in the state’s history to help shed the state’s status as the “prison capital” of the world. Measures in the bill include:
- Providing alternatives to prison for less serious offenders
- Reducing prison terms for those least likely to re-offend
- Eliminating barriers to successful re-entry
- Reinvesting $184 million in state funds to local programs that reduce recidivism
- Investing more in services for crime victims
The reforms are expected to reduce the prison and community supervision populations by 10 and 12% over the next decade, and reduce prison spending by $262 million.
In doing so, Louisiana became the latest state to enact prison reforms, following Georgia, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Texas.
How Has COVID-19 Impacted Louisiana’s Prisons?
While the Criminal Justice Reform laws were helping to move inmates out of the prisons, the coronavirus pandemic may push that trend upward. In April, a federal judge surveyed the conditions inside a state prison in Washington Parish where there were at least 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19, in rooms where 80 prisoners were sleeping in bunks and standing shoulder to shoulder in line at the infirmary. In a court order asking state officials to come up with a plan to better protect those inmates, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson wrote:
“The court finds it troubling that DOC [Department of Corrections] officials, at least at Rayburn, have apparently disregarded the importance of social distancing in preventing the spread of this unique disease.”
In a state hard hit by the pandemic, hundreds of Louisiana inmates and correctional employees have tested positive for coronavirus due to the close quarters of prison life. At the same time, testing has been limited in the prisons, so the virus’s spread behind bars might be far worse than initially believed. State corrections leaders have responded by:
- Educating inmates about handwashing
- Sanitizing common spaces
- Advising prisoners on social distancing practices
- Adding extra soup and hand sanitizer in the prisons
The question now is whether the state will need to start releasing more inmates — for their own safety and for the health and well-being of correctional workers and their families.
Find an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Louisiana
If someone you know is in prison and at risk of getting ill from COVID-19, it’s important to get an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side who can advocate on their behalf. In Louisiana, a top source for criminal defense attorneys is the John D. & Eric G. Johnson Law Firm. We have more than 25 years of experience representing ordinary citizens just like you and want to help you get your life back on the right track. It’s our mission to give you the most personalized experience possible and help you have your voice heard.
Eric Johnson is respected throughout Louisiana and is known for providing solid representation that wins cases. To schedule a free consultation regarding your case, call our office at 318-377-1555 or contact us online today. We’re here to represent you!