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Highest Incarceration Rate: A Workforce Issue

Sue Lincoln

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry convened a summit Thursday to start tackling one of the state’s less desirable statistics.

“We incarcerate a lot in Louisiana: the highest incarceration rate in the country, twice the national average,” LABI president Stephen Waguespack explained to those gathered at the event and those watching on-line.

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is actually the highest in the world. I asked former state Economic Development Secretary Michael Olivier, now with the Committee of 100, whether that’s become a barrier for businesses looking to set up shop in our state.

“It’s becoming a big factor now because it’s a workforce issue,” Olivier said, noting Louisiana graduates less than a hundred-thousand high school students per year.

“That is not enough to provide the number of workers that we need, so – some of this workforce challenge may be fulfilled from this incarceration group.”

Where to begin? Louisiana Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc says an obvious starting point is reducing recidivism.

“52% of our intake is through our probation and parole division,” LeBlanc state, adding, “It’s easy to keep ‘em behind the fences. The hard part is to keep ‘em from coming back.”

In addition, LeBlanc said half the total Louisiana prison population is comprised of non-violent offenders. Olivier said lawmakers should re-think which crimes justify prison time.

“Multiple states now have authorized the use of recreational marijuana, and here we are, putting people in jail for the use of marijuana. Well, that doesn’t fit, does it?”

State Senator Danny Martiny, who has chaired criminal justice committees in both the House and Senate during his legislative career, said reforming the system requires a committed leader.

“You need a governor that wants to do that,” Martiny observed. “Legislators want cover. They don’t want to go home and say ‘I was soft on crime’.”

In addition, Martiny reminded the audience that diversion and anti-recidivism programs do carry a cost for the state, and Louisiana is cash-strapped.

“It’s hard to do criminal justice reform with no money.”