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We're Number One: Throwing Away the Key

Media Commons

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, and costs the state $600-million a year. So how do we change that?

“Nobody’s trying to get murderers and rapists and armed robbers out of jail,” Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson advises. “We’re talking about alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders.”

Yet Louisiana is one of only two states that allows criminal convictions by less than a unanimous jury. (The other is Oregon.)

 The Louisiana ACLU and the Innocence Project both suggest 10-to-2 verdicts have contributed to the state’s soaring jail population. Ruston Representative Rob Shadoin says he’s not sure that’s a factor.

“I would be more than willing to look at some facts. That may be a contributing factor. I don’t think it’s the main factor.”

Shadoin, an attorney, should have a fairly good grasp of the problem. As he puts it, “I served three stints as a public defender.”

“Whether it’s a 10-2 verdict, or a unanimous verdict by a ‘bobtail jury’ -- that’s what we call a 6-person panel up in Lincoln Parish – the burden of proof remains the same: ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. Instead, under the guise and banner of ‘tough on crime’, we have beaten our chest and rattled our swords to show how tough we are. And the punishment is not always proportionate with the crime.”

He gave an example.

“Until last year, second-offense possession – simple possession of marijuana – was a felony.”

Then Shadoin added, “We’re locking up a lot of people for a longer time than they need to be locked up. So let’s look at sentencing in general and see if we can bring some common sense back into it.”

Chief Justice Johnson agrees that’s one of the solutions.

“A comprehensive solution to Louisiana’s over-incarceration must include reducing the length of excessive criminal sentences and providing pathways back to work and society.”