Waguespack: Lawmakers should support criminal justice reform compromise

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Having spent over 20 years in public policy, I understand that compromise is often necessary to achieving reform. This is proving to be true with the criminal justice reform package working its way through the Louisiana State Legislature.

While the original recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force would have taken more drastic steps, the latest compromise would be a sensible step for Louisiana. Over the next decade, the package in its current form would save the state $262 million and reinvest 70 percent of the savings — more than $183 million — into programs that would rehabilitate inmates with drug treatment and job training, as well as aid the victims of crime.

These reforms are a compromise product of successful negotiations between law enforcement, legislative leaders and other state officials. This package enjoys broad support from business groups like the one I am proud to represent, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which represents more than 2,200 businesses and 324,000 employees in Louisiana. From our point of view, the status quo is unacceptable and has damaged our state, our people, and our economy. Reform is definitely needed.

Stephen Waguespack

Currently, Louisiana locks its citizens up at a higher rate than any state for crimes both big and small. To be specific, eleven out of every thousand state residents (1.14 percent) are in prison – nearly double the national average and significantly higher than the next highest-incarcerating state. On average, taxpayers pay $51 per day per inmate. This adds up quickly with so many people behind bars: Louisiana spends over $700 million a year on incarceration, which is contributing to the state’s chronic budget shortfall. Yet the state’s crime rate is no lower than nearby states with less incarceration.

Making matters worse, Louisiana’s recidivism rates are among the highest in the country. Louisiana releases close to 17,000 people each year, but 1 in 3 released inmates is back behind bars within 3 years. This is where job training and educational opportunities are critical for nonviolent offenders who have proved themselves worthy of a second chance. While serving time, we must prepare them for life beyond bars so they can successfully reintegrate into society. The business community is committed to being part of the solution by expanding job opportunities and hiring rehabilitated inmates, but lawmakers must take the first step by casting their votes in favor of reform.

These aren’t just feel-good ideas about redemption and second chances. These approaches are data-driven and proven to work in other states. While Louisiana has been stuck in a cycle of wasted resources, high crime rates, and broken communities, thirty-four states have passed criminal justice reforms similar to those in this compromise proposal. This includes Southern states like Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. In return, their crime and imprisonment rates have fallen, saving taxpayer dollars, and increasing public safety.

For Louisiana lawmakers, this shouldn’t be viewed as a radical or risky overhaul of its criminal justice policy. Instead, it’s a long-overdue correction to bring our state in-line with surrounding states. These recommendations include focusing prison beds on violent offenders, clearing away barriers to successful re-entry to the general population, and maintaining public safety. Following these recommendations would save the state $262 million over the next ten years by reducing the prison population by 10 percent. And by reinvesting 70 percent of these savings in programs that would further reduce the crime rate, Louisiana will save even more money.

Public safety must always be the top priority for any state. Well designed and wisely implemented criminal justice reforms have proved to do just that in other states, while also being more responsive to the needs of taxpayers and families. We hope lawmakers approve the recent bipartisan compromise and finally put us on the path to a brighter and safer future.

Stephen Waguespack is President of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI).