NEW ORLEANS — The ACLU of Louisiana and a coalition of other organizations have come together to call on candidates in the Louisiana Governor's race to address the state's mass incarceration problem. Supporters include the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, Justice and Beyond Coalition, the New Jim Crow Task Force of the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Micah Project, Orleans Public Defenders, Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), VOTE (Voice of the Ex-Offender), VOTE (Voters Organized to Educate) and others.
Louisiana holds the distinction of being the world's incarceration leader, jailing more of its people per capita than any place on earth. Supporters say the toll in both human costs and in what it costs taxpayers to maintain this bloated system are simply more than the state can afford to continue paying and something must be done. "Louisiana's criminal justice system does not keep us safe or treat all people fairly. It wastes millions in tax dollars incarcerating thousands of people who pose little or no threat to society," said ACLU of Louisiana's executive director, Marjorie R. Esman. Esman said that many of these offenses would be better addressed through alternatives to incarceration "that hold people accountable and cost less money." "Louisiana's families continue to be shattered by harsh incarceration practices," said Gina Womack, Executive Director of FFLIC. "A state that values family relationships and family values must revisit the harsh consequences to those families of our current policies."
There are more than 38,000 people currently incarcerated by the State of Louisiana, a population split almost evenly between state and local facilities. The Louisiana Department of Corrections' annual budget has been at or near $700 million dollars for the last few years. By comparison, a look at the LSU System operating budget revealed that in instruction and student service costs, the entire system budgeted $382 million in fiscal year 2013-2014. "We spend hundreds of millions more locking people up than educating them," Esman said. She says most of those in local jails are there for non-violent offenses. At the state level many return to prison for simple parole violations, or because outdated laws impose unfairly long sentences that don't fit the offense, Esman said. Specifically, she points out the need to reform outdated marijuana laws, minimum sentencing, and three strike laws which tie judges' hands and offer no alternatives to jail time.
Esman said the group is strongly urging Louisiana's next governor to put ending mass incarceration in Louisiana at or near the top of their priority list. Ultimately, the group is looking for meaningful reform which: works to close the pipeline feeding the criminal justice system; promotes policies which see people out of the criminal justice system; and creates a criminal justice system that is fair to everyone, regardless of their race or background.