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Next step for Louisiana prison reform is to review life sentences

July 07, 2017
Louisiana lawmakers still need to prioritize changes to its long-term and life sentences, which account for nearly 1 of every 3 state prisoners, writes Ashley Nellis in an op-ed for

Louisiana lawmakers took a promising first step this summer to address the state’s embarrassing distinction as the world leader in incarceration. Though more ambitious proposals to significantly reduce the prison population were abandoned, the state is poised to save millions of dollars in corrections spending and enhance opportunities for people returning home from prison.

Legislators agreed on a slate of bills, including one that extends parole eligibility for some nonviolent offenders. Another measure eliminates life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder, but retains it for first-degree murder.

While achieving comprehensive criminal justice reform often proceeds incrementally, Louisiana would be wise to prioritize changes to its long-term and life sentences, which account for nearly one of every three state prisoners. Nearly 5,000 prisoners in the state have been sentenced to life without parole (the state does not allow parole for people convicted as adults serving life sentences) and another 6,000 prisoners have been sentenced to terms of at least 50 years, a virtual life sentence.

Thirty percent of state prisoners are serving life sentences in Louisiana, the most among all the states and double the 14 percent national average. Neighboring states of Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have fewer than 13 percent of their prisoners housed for life or virtual life terms. As is the case across the nation, lifers tend to be people of color: nearly three quarters of Louisiana’s lifer population is African-American, who make up less than a third of the state’s population.

Louisiana’s heavy use of extreme sentences represents one of the state’s most pressing and costly issues. At an approximate annual cost of $23,000 per inmate, taxpayers are paying a minimum of $253 million per year to maintain the life and virtual life-sentenced population alone. This is a conservative estimate: added health care expenses associated with housing aging prisoners raises the burden on taxpayers still higher.

Another notable feature is the proportion of today’s prisoners in Louisiana who were under 18 at the time of their crime. Nearly 400 juveniles were serving life without parole in 2016, with another 600 prisoners convicted of offenses when they were younger than 18 serving sentences of 50 years or longer. Altogether, one of every 11 lifers and virtual lifers were juveniles when they committed their crime. While their crimes certainly were serious, it is today well-established through brain science, jurisprudence and common sense that juveniles are less culpable than adults when they offend because of their immaturity and correlating factors. They require a second look that, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, allows a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The punishment spectrum is skewed toward extreme sentences and Louisiana is a classic example. There is no evidence to show that long prison sentences have a meaningful impact on crime rates, but lawmakers often embrace them anyway. A life or de facto life sentence typically stems from being convicted of a serious crime. Violent crime is a substantial problem in parts of Louisiana, but recent trends are encouraging: down 16.5 percent since 2003. Yet the numbers of life sentences have risen by 27 percent since 2001.

Critics argue that some crimes are so serious that rehabilitation is unattainable, or that lifelong punishment “fits the crime.” But research tells us that even those who commit serious crimes are far less likely to reoffend after 15 to 20 years in prison. In a report published by the National Research Council, top criminologists concluded that long sentences serve little purpose other than to reinforce the retributive goal of corrections.

If Louisiana is to significantly reduce its long-term prison population and stem the burdensome costs, it needs to establish an objective process for evaluating and allowing prisoners to go home after reasonable periods of incarceration. The American Law Institute, a nonpartisan body of legal scholars and practitioners, recommends that long sentences carry with them a provision that allows judges to revisit the original sentence after 10 to 20 years, to consider whether a sentencing reduction is justified.

Louisiana has joined the growing bipartisan movement to tackle mass incarceration. A wealth of recent research and decades of evidence will aid the state’s laudable goals of advancing proportionate and just sentencing.

Ashley Nellis is a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a Washington think- tank on criminal justice issues, and author of the report: “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-term Sentences.”

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