BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A new plan to reduce the highest-in-the-nation imprisonment rate is in the hands of top Louisiana lawmakers.
The Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force submitted the comprehensive plan to Governor John Bel Edwards on Thursday. The plan is the product of a year-long investigation by a bipartisan task force.
Combined, advocates say the proposals could reduce the prison population by 13 percent over the next ten years. That amounts to about 4,800 people and a projected $304 million in savings.
"The truth is our state needs to be more than just tough. Especially in a budget crisis, we need to be smart on crime," said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Corrections.
Louisiana has the highest imprisonment rate across the country. Out of every 100,000 residents, 816 are in prison, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. That's nearly double the national average.
"If we can't afford it and it's not working, let's do something better," said Gov. Edwards.
The task force unanimously agreed to a series of proposals reducing prison sentences and providing alternatives for nonviolent offenders, such as those in on drug charges. Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said those alternatives, including probation, drug courts, and work release programs, could be funded with the savings generated by reform.
"These are lives that can be saved. These people can be rehabilitated. They can go back home, get jobs. They can support their families and they can pay taxes, and that's the right thing to do," Johnson said.
The question is, with the state strapped for cash, will state legislators look to actually reinvest the dollars saved? East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, who supports reform for low-end offenders, said he worries they will not.
"What type of help are you going to get to them right now? Or right before they get out? Tell me what you want to do for them, before they get out, to prevent them from coming back," Moore said.
The task force also advanced, without unanimous support, a plan to reform how more violent offenders are treated. That includes opening the door to parole for those in on life sentences. The District Attorney Association worries those sorts of policy changes could put public safety at risk.
The police proposals approved by the task force will now be transformed into legislation that lawmakers can consider during the upcoming legislative session. The session begins on Monday, April 10.