Supporters say prison reform could answer Louisiana's budget problems

Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana's incarceration rate is one of the highest in the nation and Wednesday night, the Justice Reinvestment Task Force held a town hall asking community members to help come up with a plan to turn those numbers around.

"We're going to have to be smarter. We can do this. We're smart people and we can do this," said Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson.

But while Louisiana puts more of its people per capita in prison than any other state, it does not mean the Bayou State is riddled with offenders.

"Louisianians don't commit more crimes than people in other states, but they are just incarcerated at a much higher rate than anybody else," said Southern University Law Center Chancellor John Pierre.

The group is tasked with presenting fixes to the criminal justice system through sentencing reform, probation and parole policies, and legal financial obligations. The goal is to get lawmakers to back a bill this session that could mean fewer people behind bars.

"I went to prison when I was 17-years-old. I had just turned 17-years-old with a life sentence in 1973," Lou Sullivan said.

Some in the crowd told personal stories of their time in prison that started with tragedy and ended with triumph. Many who attended the town hall say getting out is something more inmates, especially non-violent ones, should get the chance to do.

"This is about compassion, this is about mercy, and this is about providing people with opportunity," said Norris Henderson,  executive director of VOTE.

It's an opportunity that could also be the answer to some of the state's financial problems. The changes are projected to save Louisiana about $700 million.

"When you talk about a projected deficit going next year is about $400 million to $500 million, if you could really capture that savings, that could help us a lot," Pierre added.

Supporters of prison reform say it's a savings the state simply cannot afford to miss out on. The task force plans to have proposal ready for lawmakers by March and hope it will make it through the legislature during the 2017 regular session.

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