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How much will Gov. Jeff Landry’s criminal justice changes cost? State officials can’t say.

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How much will Gov. Jeff Landry’s criminal justice changes cost? State officials can’t say.

Feb 27, 2024 | 7:54 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
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How much will Gov. Jeff Landry’s criminal justice changes cost? State officials can’t say.
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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)

Gov. Jeff Landry has been clear about everything in his criminal justice package —  except how much his proposals could ultimately cost Louisiana taxpayers. 

At the behest of Landry, state lawmakers are swiftly pushing public safety bills through a special session of the Louisiana Legislature without knowing what the price tag for those tough-on-crime measures will be. 

The Legislature’s financial analysts have not released cost estimates for Landry’s proposals, which are on a fast track to become law by the end of the week. Republican lawmakers sponsoring the bills have said the expense of the legislation ultimately isn’t relevant.

“I think people want to be safe and people are willing to spend money to be safe,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, who oversees state spending for the Legislature. “I’m inclined to think the benefits will outweigh the costs.” 

But the budget impact of legislation from Landry’s crime special session looks to be substantial at a time when Louisiana is already coping with budget shortfalls. 

The governor backs proposals to lengthen prison sentences and make it harder for incarcerated people to be released. Those measures will likely increase Louisiana’s inmate population and cost the state more money for years to come. 

Thirteen of Landry’s criminal justice bills would add to state spending, according to fiscal notes attached to the legislation. Budget analysts said those items would cause an “indeterminable increase” in the state’s financial obligations. 

Bills to lengthen prison sentences for carjacking, increase penalties for illegal use of a weapon and almost entirely eliminate parole are among the most expensive. They could, in theory, grow the prison system’s expenses by more than $11 million each per year if the harshest sentences are almost always given out, according to the analysts. 

‘We will find a way…’

Republicans backing the legislation say the costs are worth it because public safety is essential. 

“Where there is a priority, we will find a way to pay for it,” said Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, a former prosecutor and sponsor of legislation to eliminate most parole.

“I’m not touting this as a fiscally responsible bill, right?” Villio said during debate in the House of Representatives over her proposal last week. 

Those added expenses for the prison system could exacerbate future state budget gaps.

Louisiana expects to face annual financial shortfalls of over half a billion dollars starting in 2025. A 0.45% portion of the state sales tax expires next year that will leave the state short on money, and Landry’s additional public safety spending will widen those budget holes. 

Landry also has other expensive public safety measures in the works. He launched a plan to add a state police troop in New Orleans that is expected to cost $10 million over just the next four months. 

“My question is where are we going to find the money to pay for this?” Senate President Pro Tempore Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said.

GOP cutbacks

Over the past year, Republicans have been willing to pick over several other budget proposals in the name of fiscal responsibility. 

Due to the planned sales tax cut next year, Landry and GOP lawmakers have said they don’t think the state can afford to give public school teachers a permanent raise.

The governor stripped funding for several programs, including domestic violence shelters, from his first state budget proposal in an effort to cut public spending. He also issued an executive order last month directing state agency heads to look for savings and budget cuts within their own departments.  

The governor’s own public safety bills haven’t been subjected to the same scrutiny. 

“I haven’t seen that [cash] machine yet, but we’ve got some money coming from somewhere,” Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, joked last week during a discussion of the financial impact of Landry’s crime legislation. “I don’t want to get to the point where we ignore the fiscal part of these plans.”

Lawmakers are moving the governor’s public safety bills so fast that the fiscal analyses of proposals haven’t even been completed. 

Legislative staff are still waiting on information from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, the Louisiana Sheriffs Association and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association to finish financial impact reports for nine bills, according to their notes. 

‘They’ll issue a blank check’

The lack of data hasn’t stopped the legislation from moving forward. The proposals are expected to get their final votes before the end of the week.

“Conservatives, especially, when it comes to public safety, they’ll issue a blank check,” said Scott Peyton, director of Right on Crime, a conservative organization that advocates for less incarceration.

A few Republican lawmakers also said they expect the financial impact of lengthening prison sentences to not be as extreme as the legislative analyses suggest. More severe sentencing should deter people from committing crimes and ending up in prison in the first place, they said. 

“People should be less willing to commit crimes if the penalties are stiffened,” said Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, who is the head of the Senate Finance Committee that oversees the budget.

Studies show increasing criminal penalties doesn’t correlate to a safer public, however. Over the past 20 years, 19 states — including Texas and Mississippi — lowered their prison populations and crime rates by investing in rehabilitative programs for formerly incarcerated people and prison alternatives, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, an organization advocating for less incarceration.  

“Research consistently shows that higher incarceration rates are not associated with lower violent crime rates,” wrote Don Stemen, with the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago, in a report for Vera.

Louisiana also tried the tough-on-crime approach for decades with little success. For 30 years, legislators ramped up penalties and prison sentences to try to make the state safer, but Louisiana continued to have one of the country’s highest crime rates.

Former Gov. John Bel Edwards decided to change that approach in 2017, when he and state lawmakers cut prison sentences and expanded parole and probation opportunities. The bipartisan strategy allowed the state to save millions of dollars on incarceration expenses over seven years, while diverting money into crime prevention programs and victim services.

Yet Landry has blamed Edwards crime justice overhaul for the spike in violent crime that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Republicans are also frustrated by ongoing problems with teenagers in the juvenile justice system who have destroyed and escaped from state facilities around Louisiana.

“We keep talking about the financial costs of these bills… but investing in these bills is investing in saving lives,” said Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, who supports Landry’s criminal justice package.