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Angola is not only a prison, but a very expensive nursing home

This piece originally appeared in the NOLA Times Picayune.


The warden of Angola is right in stating, "You get older, you mature" in voicing his support for proposed changes by Gov. John Bel Edwards' Justice Reinvestment Task Force. Their recommendations would reduce the prison population by expanding parole opportunities for older people serving long sentences in Louisiana's prisons.

These changes are consistent with research showing that people age out of crime, with older people posing a minimal public safety risk but costing the state millions as they unnecessarily remain in prison.

'Geriatric parole' ought to be an option in Louisiana

One reason Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration is that our state keeps inmates locked up long after they may have been rehabilitated.

So, while many policymakers in Louisiana and around the country have focused on reducing the incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent offenses, the data shows that restricting who is considered for shorter sentences and community-based supervision to only nonviolent offenses means we end up spending more taxpayer dollars without getting a good public safety return on the investment.  

As the Justice Policy Institute discussed in our report, "Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America's Approach to Violence," we will not be able to lower our incarceration rates significantly -- and save precious public funds -- without changing how the justice system treats violent crimes. And there is evidence that we can do so in a cost effective and safe manner.  

For example, due to a state appellate ruling, since 2013 there have been more than 100 people released from Maryland prisons after serving long sentences for violent crimes, almost all of whom had been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for homicide. None of those who have been released have been convicted of a new felony offense since their release. Moreover, many of them have been giving back to their communities, including by talking with young people to discourage them from going into a life of crime. If not for the court ruling, all of them would have grown old and died in prison, costing the state millions of dollars. Similarly, data from Michigan and New York show that parole reforms can result in people convicted of violent crimes being safely released into their communities, with states seeing savings as a result.

How long should La. keep old, ill criminals in prison?

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Like in Louisiana, Maryland's, Michigan's and New York's prisons often function as extremely expensive nursing homes. But the data show that changes in law can result in savings to the state and more humane treatment of those who would have otherwise died in prison, without negatively impacting public safety. Following Gov. Edwards' task force recommendations gives Louisiana the opportunity to save millions. Those dollars should then be reinvested into neighborhoods most impacted by crime, which would result in safer and stronger communities in the long term.

It is not surprising that prosecutors, who raise the "tough on crime" banner and often claim to speak on behalf of victims in the criminal justice system, are opposing some of task force recommendations. But it is important to note that despite what we often hear from prosecutors and other proponents of lengthy sentences, there is evidence that crime victims support the kind of sentencing reform and violence prevention approach that would help Louisiana reduce its prison population and save money. A recent survey of crime victims by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that six in 10 crime victims actually prefer increased spending on prevention and rehabilitation versus keeping people in prison for as long as possible. And nearly eight out of 10 want their prosecutors to focus on solving neighborhood problems and stopping repeat crimes through rehabilitation, even if it means fewer convictions and prison sentences.

It's clear that Louisiana can safely and meaningfully reduce its prison populations by following the evidence toward a more effective approach in how the justice system treats those convicted of violent offenses. The recommendation to safely release elderly prisoners who no longer represent a threat to the community would result in substantial savings and safer communities. It's a smart on crime approach that should not be passed up.

This piece originally appeared in the NOLA Times Picayune.

You can follow Marc on Twitter at @marc4justice.

 

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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