Why Are Louisiana Legislators Trying to Incarcerate More People?

Sam McCann Senior Writer // Sarah Omojola Director, Vera Louisiana
Jun 06, 2023

Last month, Louisiana’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would publish allegations against children who are accused—but not necessarily convicted—of crimes. If signed into law, the bill would create a public portal that would allow anyone to view those allegations, but it would not apply statewide. Instead, it would go into effect for children accused of crimes in just three parishes, all with majority-Black cities within them.

Publishing the records of minors who were accused or convicted of a crime will not prevent violence, nor address the underlying causes of crime. It will, however, ensure that a young person accused or convicted of a crime has an even steeper uphill battle to becoming a thriving member of the community, as arrest and conviction records can make it harder for people to enroll in school, receive scholarships, or get a job.

The bill is emblematic of Louisiana’s misguided focus this legislative session. State legislators have spent the spring moving forward with bills that they claim would increase public safety but do nothing to prevent harm from happening in the first place. Among the bills being considered are the following:

  • a bill that would require an automatic life sentence without parole for people convicted of fentanyl possession;
  • a bill that would lower the age that children could be prosecuted as adults, rather than being diverted to the juvenile legal system;
  • a bill that would make it much more difficult to receive parole, making anyone who had been incarcerated for less than 10 years ineligible; and
  • a bill that would set mandatory minimum bail amounts for people accused of certain violent crimes, without considering the person’s ability to pay.

Lawmakers have also shot down bills that would create exceptions to Louisiana’s abortion ban, which outlaws abortion and criminalizes abortion providers. Some of these exceptions would have allowed doctors to save the life of a pregnant person or alleviate the suffering of survivors of rape and incest. Laws that criminalize abortion have an outsized impact on people experiencing poverty and people of color.

Taken together, these priorities would further criminalize communities of color and increase the state’s already swollen jail and prison population while doing nothing to improve public safety. For decades, Louisiana had the highest imprisonment rate in the country and one of the highest in the world, leading The Times-Picayune to dub it the “world’s prison capital.” This spring, Vera released detailed data showing that this is an issue across Louisiana; most parishes send people to prison and jail at rates that far exceed the national average.

The criminalization of communities of color and mass incarceration are the result of policy choices by lawmakers. In 2017, legislators passed a bipartisan series of criminal justice reforms that took aim at reducing long prison terms, expanding parole eligibility, and locking up fewer people for nonviolent crimes. Driven in part by those reforms, Louisiana’s prison population fell by 10,000 between 2016 and 2021, keeping communities intact and saving $150 million in taxpayer money with no negative impact on public safety.

But this legislative session, the bills getting through committee—and even those reaching the governor’s desk—threaten to erase those enormous gains. Last year, Governor John Bel Edwards vetoed legislation that would have rolled back many of the 2017 reforms. This year, a supermajority of Republicans could override any veto the governor might use to protect evidence-based reforms. Moreover, multiple gubernatorial candidates are running on “tough-on-crime” platforms that fail to build safety.

Public safety is the single most important issue to Louisiana voters. This makes sense: everyone has a right to be safe. But you can’t incarcerate public safety into existence—it must be affirmatively created through investment in public programs. That’s a fact that Louisiana residents seem to know, even as it escapes state legislators. According to a recent statewide poll, 82 percent of likely voters want the government to provide treatment to people with mental health or substance use issues, rather than jailing them. Eighty-three percent of voters think the state should make it easier for people who have spent time in prison to find employment. More than 70 percent of voters also voiced support for clearing the records of non-violent offenders and for not detaining people charged with minor crimes before their day in court.

In short, Louisianans have evolved in their thinking about how to address crime, but the state legislature is turning to the same failed tools that made the state the capital of incarceration in the first place.

So, what are the solutions? Instead of criminalizing people, we should be talking about implementing public services that can deliver communities the safety they deserve. For instance: the current budget proposal cuts $174 million in Department of Health funding while expanding the Department of Corrections budget. That means massive cuts to programs that support people who are disabled or living in poverty, which makes little sense, given that investment in social support systems like healthcare is proven to dramatically reduce crime.

Legislators committed to public safety should also work to invest in housing. Creating more permanent affordable housing and non-congregate shelter units can help alleviate the housing crisis that leaves many Louisiana residents at risk of being targeted by the criminal legal system. Moreover, expanding supportive housing programs that offer tailored services can expedite treatment for people with mental health or substance use needs, rather than jailing them. Similar programs in other jurisdictions have been proven effective in reducing rearrest rates.

Lawmakers should also increase investments in early childhood education, physical and mental health care, and infrastructure that is resilient to hurricanes and floods. They should also build out civilian responses to 911 calls that are tailored to the situation at hand. Armed law enforcement officers are not the best people to respond to mental health crises or to low-level traffic violations, and removing them from those situations improves public safety.

The legislature’s myopic focus on expanding the jail and prison systems and doubling down on criminalization jeopardizes public safety for all of Louisiana. If these policies are enacted, Louisiana can expect to stay on the top of the bad lists and the bottom of the good lists. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past, and lawmakers should heed the calls of voters who want sustainable solutions for safety, not ever-expanding jails and prisons.