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Evidence lacking to support Landry’s stricter, more costly criminal justice approach

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Evidence lacking to support Landry’s stricter, more costly criminal justice approach

Feb 20, 2024 | 1:19 pm ET
By Greg LaRose
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Evidence lacking to support Landry’s stricter, more costly criminal justice approach
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Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry gestures to the balcony as he addresses members of Louisiana Legislature on the opening day of a legislative special session focusing on crime, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in the House chamber at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. (Hillary Scheinuk/The Advocate, Pool)

In a nutshell, Gov. Jeff Landry’s main objectives for the special legislative session on crime policy are to put more people in prison, keep them there longer and limit their opportunities to get out sooner. 

The governor also wants to add more ways to put condemned individuals to death and treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.    

While conventional conservative wisdom considers more stringent punitive measures a criminal deterrent, there is no firm empirical evidence that confirms this correlation. Yet this absence of support has done little to sway Landry and Republican lawmakers, who are intent on living up to their tough-on-crime campaign promises.

“What we’ve seen over the past 40 years of criminal justice policy development is an absence of data and research to support decision making,” said Leonard Engel, director of policy and campaigns for the Crime and Justice Institute. The nonpartisan progressive organization has provided support for efforts to improve the adult and juvenile justice systems. 

Like Engel, three local nonpartisan groups have also questioned the wisdom of greasing the skids toward imprisonment without any matching strategy to prevent crime from happening in the first place. The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Committee of 100 issued a statement saying as much under their coalition umbrella, Reset Louisiana. 

“More should be done to continue to reduce violent crime,” the Reset statement reads. “However, reversing course back to incarcerating large numbers of low-risk or nonviolent people carries too hefty a cost for taxpayers in a corrections budget that totals hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Little evidence exists to show that imprisoning criminals with longer sentences reduces crime or recidivism, though it definitely will cost taxpayers more money and put a greater strain on the budget.”

The Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) has explored the potential financial impact of the measures under consideration in the special session. For example, it extrapolated the cost of removing “good time” provisions that allow incarcerated people to leave prison ahead of their assigned sentences. 

In his speech to open the session, Landry told legislators up to 70% of a criminal sentence can be “removed for ‘good time,’” without any requirement for the person to participate in educational or rehabilitative services while behind bars. 

“It’s like a participation trophy for jail,” the governor said.

Landry’s remarks ignore that Louisiana law requires all persons serving time for felonies to work if capable. Many of these jobs are low-skill, manual labor positions that don’t necessarily translate to work opportunities after incarceration. Plus, prison laborers typically receive payment that’s pennies on the market-rate dollar, with sheriffs and correctional facility operators seeing the profits. 

According to CJI’s research, persons released from Louisiana prisons in 2022 served an average of 41% of their sentence. If they would have served 100%, it would have resulted in an additional 6,347 days in prison.

More than half of that amount would be served in local jails, where 53% of individuals serve their time. That would result in another $151,000 in cost per inmate for sheriffs, even after factoring in state reimbursements. 

If the 2022 releases would have served 85% of their sentences, they would have spent an additional 2,497 days incarcerated at a reimbursement-adjusted cost of $121,000 per person for local jails. 

These statistics conveniently haven’t found their way into discussions over the governor’s proposals, opposition to which he has framed as “virtuous compassion for criminals” that “has become a liberal custom to many, without forethought of the consequences to society and the danger it creates in our neighborhoods and homes.”

Despite what Landry might suggest, no one — no matter where they land on the political scale — has suggested criminals go without consequences entirely. But if prison is to be the first and foremost tool for addressing violent crime in Louisiana, it should include a commitment to providing rehabilitative services to its wards. That means mental health care and soft skills training, not just hands-on vocational experience. 

The large majority of people incarcerated in Louisiana eventually have to be released. It would be great if the governor and others who share his take on criminal justice kept this in mind.