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Louisiana’s Incarceration Rate: Seeking Reasons and Fixes

“I guess we all know by now that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation.”

And that’s what prompted a new performance audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, looking for the reasons why. Karen LeBlanc with the auditor’s office told a state senate committee they examined data from the Department of Corrections for the years 2009 through 2015.

“58% of individuals incarcerated during that time frame were incarcerated for non-violent offenses. About 18% of that 58% were for drug offenses only,” LeBlanc summarized.

“We identified about 8800 offenders that had drug possession convictions only, and had we sent them to drug court, we found that we could have saved about $70-million.”

Pete Adams with the District Attorneys’ Association says though they worked with the auditor compiling the info, they don’t concur with that conclusion.

“Drug courts – they’re expensive, and they handle fewer people than the regular court,” Adams told the Judiciary C committee, adding, “These numbers on savings, I think, are very optimistic and do not account for the cost of increasing local services, rehabilitation, and the cost that will go along with this.”

The report also points to mandatory minimum sentences, a lack of rehabilitation programs in some jails, and re-incarceration for technical violations of parole as contributing factors to the state’s incarceration rate, which averages 816 prisoners per 100,000 population.

Senator Fred Mills of New Iberia put LeBlanc on the spot, asking her, “I guess this is the question – I’m not sure if you want to answer it – but if you were a legislator next session, and you could introduce one bill that would have a meaningful result, what would that bill be?”

“It’s hard to select one,” LeBlanc responded. “Reform generally has been piecemeal. We really need to look comprehensively at the whole system and reform it.”

“So there is no ‘silver bullet’,” committee chair Dan Claitor observed. “Perhaps we really ought to consider it a rope we‘re all going to pull, and it’s got a whole lot of different threads. And if you get enough of the threads together in the form of legislation, it’ll pull a heavier load. Otherwise, it’ll snap and won’t do anything.”