Incarceration politics

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center for the States’ public safety performance project, cites a change in politics regarding incarceration in Louisiana. Change would be welcome. One of every 55 Louisiana adults is behind bars – a higher incarceration rate than any other state. One in 26 Louisiana adults are under correctional control, the report says, if probation and parole are included.

“I think what we’re seeing is that the politics of this issue are changing,” Gelb said. “The old question used to be, ‘How can we demonstrate we’re tough on crime?’ More and more, policy-makers from both sides of the aisle are asking a better question, which is: ‘How do we get taxpayers a better return on their dollars?”’

If Gelb’s assessment is accurate, and the politics of imprisonment are changing in a way that will reduce our prison occupancy, there should be significant savings for Louisiana’s taxpayers. Gelb said Texas has saved $500 million by expanding parole and probation, while stopping the construction of new prisons.

In last year’s study, Pew Charitable Trusts said its researchers had found that decisions to imprison more offenders for longer periods drain money from other programs, such as education and health care. The researchers noted that Louisiana spends 46 cents on corrections for every dollar it spends on higher education.

For too many years, the state has placed minimal emphasis on alternative prison measures and rehabilitation programs. The state should review progress being made in reducing the prisoner population through diversion programs. These programs include work release, home monitoring and day reporting. A recent study shows that inmates who enroll in the diversion programs are 20 percent less likely to return to jail after release.

Louisiana needs to make better use of technology, such as electronic bracelets that allow close monitoring of convicted criminals outside the prison environment.

Halfway houses give judges new sentencing options as well as offering a program for the transition from incarceration to freedom.

We also need to look at whether Louisiana can afford to hold elderly and ill inmates in prison until they die. The cost of maintaining such prisoners is higher than average.

Gelb says with sensible alternatives to incarceration, “You can spend less money and have less crime.”

This should be a major goal for the Jindal administration.

Louisiana’s prison officials are thinking along the same lines. A new committee will be convened shortly to consider ways Louisiana could better handle prisoners. That is important not only to prison officials, but to everyone in Louisiana’s governmental structure. It has a financial impact on every department of government.

– The Advertiser, Lafayette, La.