­­­­­­Louisiana Legislators Are Trying to Keep People in Prison Longer. It Won’t Make Anyone Safer.

Crime is on the decline, but instead of investing in communities, Governor Jeff Landry is reversing reforms that benefited Louisianans.
Sam McCann Senior Writer
Apr 23, 2024
Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry
Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry.

Louisiana’s new governor, Jeff Landry, is working to roll back reforms to the criminal legal system and reverse laws that shrunk the state’s prison population under his predecessor. During his campaign, Landry made a point of calling crime in Louisiana “out of control” and called the majority Black cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport “dangerous.” Once elected, he used the alleged crime wave to justify spending his first two months in office convening a special legislative session to write several laws designed to lengthen time served for prison sentences and eliminate the majority of parole. And now, during the Louisiana State Legislature’s regularly scheduled session running through June 3, Governor Landry and his allies continue to work to chip away at reforms.

But Landry’s fearmongering on crime does not reflect reality. Violent crime actually declined in New Orleans and Baton Rouge in 2023, after a brief pandemic-fueled spike aligned with national trends. That falling crime rate contradicts the entire stated logic of the special session. Representative Alonzo Knox, who represents a section of Orleans Parish, laid out his understanding of the landscape during committee debate for House Bill 10, on sentencing: “Overall nonviolent crime [is down] in my district of New Orleans . . . . While we may not be perfect, we are headed in the right direction. While we may not have all the resources, we’re still making do.”

Knox’s comments are compelling and directly refute the governor’s arguments. But shortly thereafter, Representative Debbie Villio, who authored House Bill 10, dismissed the statistics he cited, claiming that crime has not gone down. Yet, the fact remains that violent crime is falling faster in New Orleans than in other major cities. So far this year, homicide in New Orleans is down about 40 percent—part of the country’s quickest decline pace in decades. And across multiple categories—including carjackings, armed robberies, and nonfatal shootings—crime in New Orleans decreased in 2023.

Nonetheless, the bill passed through committee, and Landry signed it into law about two weeks later. With his signature, the state reduced the amount of time that can be taken off someone’s sentence for good behavior.

The exchange between Representatives Knox and Villio encapsulates the fearmongering approach of Landry and his allies in the Louisiana legislature. Everyone in Louisiana deserves to be safe. And legislators need to be serious about ensuring safety with real, proven solutions—or they will fail. That means taking sober stock of crime and its causes, as Knox tried to do, rather than engaging in scare tactics. And it means investing in tools to prevent crime, not just responding to it after the fact with incarceration.

Punishment over progress

Unfortunately, Landry has prioritized incarceration above all else, despite evidence that it’s ineffective at deterring crime. During Landry’s special session, the legislature voted to charge 17-year-olds as adults, including for misdemeanors. In addition to reducing the amount of “good time” incarcerated people can accumulate, legislators eliminated parole, with few exceptions. The new laws will create stiffer penalties for carjacking and drug offenses. And they’ll expand methods for carrying out the death penalty—including the previously banned method of electrocution—paving the way for executions to resume in the state after a 14-year hiatus.

Taken together, these harsher laws—which Landry claims will deter people from committing crimes and reduce jail population—will actually lead to a surge in the state’s incarcerated population. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been reduced 13 times since 1979, but there has been no discernible correlation between crime and prison population in the years after which the state’s prison population grew. Instead, data shows that incarceration in Louisiana fuels inequality and racial injustice. In a state where roughly one-third of the population is Black, Black people represent nearly two-thirds of the incarcerated population.

Taken individually, the policies also fail to stand up to scrutiny. Look at parole, for example: people approved for parole are rearrested at less than half the rate of those who leave prison after serving their full sentence. Parole release also saves states money, which can then be spent on affirmatively building safety, such as investing in mental health and substance use programs. Eliminating parole could cost the state more than $200 million a year. Yet Landry and his allies did exactly that, arguing—despite research to the contrary—that the new law will decrease recidivism, while providing no real evidence as to how ending an important program helps Louisianans stay safe.

“When you get these legislative ideas, like getting rid of parole completely, or [cutting back] good time, they’re not based on any kind of rational thought, they’re just meant to keep people away,” said Claude-Michael Comeau, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, in an interview with Vera.

Louisianans deserve real solutions

Rational solutions to build a Louisiana where everyone feels safe exist. Louisiana has tools at its disposal—ones that have proven effective in jurisdictions nationwide. Lawmakers simply have to choose to use them over incarceration. More effective solutions include:

  • Funding community violence interruption (CVI) programs. CVI programs have shown promise in reducing shootings and gun violence by up to 30 percent. They do so by drawing on relationships in the community, working with people who already live in a neighborhood and who have credibility within it to support healing and address conflict.
  • Establishing neighborhood safety community hubs that provide services, programming, and basic necessities. These offices are staffed by civilian city government employees who work to ensure safety by meeting community needs and building durable relationships. These hubs can provide mental health treatment, job readiness programs, housing assistance, and more. Taken together, the strategies reduce overreliance on police and have proven to be effective tools in reducing crime in cities like Richmond, California.
  • Providing community support for survivors of crime to heal and perpetrators of harm to change. Sixty-one percent of victims of crime would rather have prevention and rehabilitation services than longer sentences. Sixty-nine percent of victims of violent crime prefer accountability options that don’t include prison, and 82 percent want to invest in prevention programs rather than incarceration.

Moreover, Louisiana voters want those solutions: a poll conducted last year found that 82 percent of likely voters want the government to provide treatment to people with mental health or substance use conditions, rather than jailing them. Eighty-three percent of likely voters think the state should make it easier for people who have spent time in prison to find employment. And more than 70 percent of people polled also voiced support for expunging or sealing the records of nonviolent offenders who have served their time and have not committed a new crime. In addition, 77 percent of people were in favor of not detaining people charged with minor crimes while they await their day in court.

But there are certainly no solutions that meet these needs coming from Landry, whose prescription to address safety starts and ends with incarceration.

“[In the recently passed laws,] there’s zero investment in actual things that prevent crime,” said Comeau. “People are resource-starved, and, basically, there’s no solution to that.”

Solutions get shortchanged when legislators ignore facts in favor of empty rhetoric and crowded prisons. A serious plan for safety in Louisiana involves investments in education, health care, job programs, and mental health and substance use treatment, all of which has been shown to reduce crime. It also involves community violence intervention, civilian crisis response, and diversion programs.

Safety is built affirmatively. The collective goal of Louisiana’s legislators should be to prevent people from being victims of crimes in the first place through proven and proactive solutions, not seeking punishment after the fact. Turning to prisons to solve the state’s problems is a well-trodden path, and it leads to the kind of injustice and crime that has hurt Louisianans for far too long.