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Non-Violent Offenders Fill Jails in Prison Nation’s Worst State: Louisiana

“One out of three black men in Louisiana” under prison system.

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The United States is the world’s foremost prison nation—with the highest percentage of people behind bars—and Louisiana is its capital, with the most senseless mix of lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, skyrocketing prison costs, and little evidence that its “lock ‘em up and forget ‘em” policies have reduced violence.

That’s the conclusion by a coalition of libertarian groups seeking sentencing reform in the state with highest incarceration rate—especially for non-violent drug offenses—who, along with Louisiana’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, have launched a joint campaign to try to unwind one of America’s nastiest prison systems.

“When the Pelican Institute and the ACLU combine on a topic, comedians may lick their chops,” wrote James Varney, a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist. “Or folks could conclude, ‘It’s time…’

Time is a curious word to use when describing how terrible Louisiana’s court system is. Despite some recent attempts to give judges some discretion in sentencing non-violent offenders, decades of mandatory sentencing laws—overwhelmingly snaring the state’s African-American population—add up to years in jail. According to a Mother Jones analysis, Blacks make up 33 percent of the population, but 76 percent of prisoners.

ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman told a recent sentencing forum that one-in-86 Louisiana adults are in prison—double the national average, Louisiana Weekly reported. “Esman said that one out of three black men in Louisiana are under some kind of correctional control… and the fact that Black men are more likely to go to jail for pot than white men.”

“As of December 31, 2012, there were approximately 242 inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent drug and property crimes,” the “Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime” report from the Reason Foundation, Pelican Institute and Texas Public Policy Foundation said. “These laws have been disproportionately applied to non-violent crimes, nonviolent offenders now account for the majority of inmates and admissions to prison in the state.”

Elsewhere in the country, the Reason Foundation has promoted privatizing prisons. But their latest report emphasized that Louisiana was wasting tax dollars and not stopping the most serious crimes.

This has produced a number of unfortunate consequences, such as an increase in the state’s prison population from 21,007 in 1992 to 39,709 in 2011 and a $315 million increase in correction expenditures during the same time period, from $442.3 million (in 2011 dollars) in 1992 to $757.4 million in 2011. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that the laws have done anything to reduce Louisiana’s violent crime rate, which remains considerably above both the national average and the rates in its neighboring states. Today, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, with 868 of every 100,000 of its citizens in prison.

What’s particularly eyebrow-raising is that “numerous violent crimes, such as negligent homocide, manslaughter, aggravated assault with a firearm, aggravated battery, simple rape and simple kidnapping carry no mandatory minimum at all,” Reason reported. In contrast, Louisiana law—especially drug laws—draw “essentially trivial lines between degrees of criminal activity that can result in dramatic differences in punishment.”

The report offers glaring examples. Possessing 199.9 grams of cocaine has a mandatory minimum sentence of five year of hard labor plus a $50,000 fine, while possessing 200 gram doubles the time at hard labor sentence and fine. Five years of hard labor and a $50,000 fine is also the penalty for “offenders convicted of growing or selling any amount of marijuana,” it notes.

The analysis goes on to describe how repeat offenders face complex sentencing formulas that add up to years, if not decades, spent in jail—often at hard labor.