Life can be counter-intuitive. Case in point: the country that leads the international call for human rights also maintains the largest prison population. But that’s a good thing, right? Apparently not.
In these tough economic times, as states look for ways to save money, lawmakers are reconsidering their notion of what constitutes a crime. Louisiana’s prison population has more than doubled in the past 20 years while the resulting costs have tripled. 1 in 55 Louisianans is behind bars. Not only do we lead the other 49 states with our incarceration rate – we are the world leader. However, the Louisiana legislature is now considering a pair of bills aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, and by extension, its costs.
House Bill 416, the “parole bill,” would accelerate eligibility for nonviolent offenders. First-time, nonviolent offenders would be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence, down from the current 33 percent. Second-time offenders could be paroled after serving one-third of their sentence, down from 50 percent today. It would apply only to prisoners who are sentenced after the bill takes effect, meaning any cost savings would materialize years down the line.
House Bill 414 attempts to simplify the process by which prisoners can earn early release. This formula includes compliance with prison rules and participation in educational programs that tend to lower the chance that they’ll offend again. The bill seeks to change current law to require offenders to serve at least 40 percent of their sentence, instead of the current minimum of 46 percent. This is a change the Pew Center estimates would save the state more than $253 million over 10 years — a good start for a state $39 billion in debt.
Unfortunately these bills are facing challenges from elected officials who fear the backlash from conservative interest groups who were instrumental in instituting harsh guidelines in the first place. It seems that when faced with the choice between the calls of fiscal responsibility and moral indignation, some people choose the latter.
Studies indicate that a rise in prison populations has less to do with a rise in crime than it does with how crime is defined. We all agree that someone who commits a violent crime is a criminal deserving of harsh punishment. But do we agree that the same label and punishment befits someone who occasionally smokes marijuana? Increasingly, these definitions are subject to public opinion and state budgets making the line between right and wrong a bit of a moving target.
The beauty of our governing documents is that they allow for changing attitudes and societal needs. Our Constitution spells out our individual rights and they are not subject to public opinion or budgetary constraint. If you’re ever arrested, follow these simple rules.