Today, the Reason Foundation, in conjunction with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, has announced the release of “Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: An Argument for Reforming Louisiana’s Determinate Sentencing Laws.” The paper, authored by Lauren Galik and Julian Morris of the Reason Foundation, brings to light Louisiana’s outmoded overreliance on mandatory minimum sentences as a means of criminal deterrence.
Dismayed by the lack of severity of felony sentences and the swiftness with which they were applied, lawmakers in Louisiana passed a swath of determinate sentencing laws ranging from mandatory minimum legislation to habitual offender laws. The former statutorily imposes a “floor” – a minimum length of time a sentence must contain upon the finding of guilt for a specific crime. The latter requires the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence based on how many felony re-offenses the individual has been found to have committed, the most notorious of which being “Three Strikes” laws.
While superficially an effective deterrent to criminal behavior, determinant sentencing laws wrest control of individual case processing and adjudication from the trained professionals of the criminal justice system and grant it to the legislature. This rote process limits the sentencing options available to the court and fails to take into account individual variation between cases. As such studies have shown that, while harsher sentences are more frequently given and prison populations swell under determinate sentencing schemes, there is no positive effect on public safety for the accompanying increase in cost.
Louisiana has shown the willingness to make sentencing reform a priority. Over the past two years, Louisiana lawmakers passed bills allowing courts to waive mandatory minimum requirements in certain situations, expanding eligibility for parole for nonviolent offenders, and incentivized further use of drug treatment and rehabilitation/vocational programs. With the coming interest this report is likely to generate, we eagerly look forward to the next wave of common sense criminal justice reforms for the state.
Louisiana leads the world in the number of people it imprisons, but the Pelican Institute, along with Texas Public Policy Foundation, have developed model legislation to remedy this problem.
Texas Public Policy Foundation’s counterpart, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, will host “Safe & Fair Louisiana: A Forum on Criminal Justice Reform” at 7 PM on Wednesday, October 3 at UNO’s Jefferson Center, Room 317, for a public forum on criminal justice reform in Louisiana. Kevin Kane, Right on Crime signatory and president of the Pelican Institute, will serve as a panelist for the discussion on how to lower the Louisiana prison population while reducing taxpayer expenses and improving public safety.
In this National Review Online article, ROC policy analyst Vikrant Reddy discusses the ruling of Saint Joseph Abbey v. Castille, a case about the unlicensed sale of a funeral casket in Louisiana, and explains why it is “a significant victory against overcriminalization and unnecessary licensing.”
ROC signatory Grover Norquist co-authors this Reuters op-ed with Patrick Gleason, in which they further discuss how U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is late to the party regarding criminal justice reforms, noting that “it has been Republicans in the states who are leading the way.”
“Consider Texas, where the smart-on-crime policy reform movement began in 2003, when the state’s Republican legislators passed a law mandating that all non-dealer drug offenders convicted for possession of less than a gram be sentenced to probation instead of jail time.
Recognizing the success of smart-on-crime reforms in Texas, other states have now followed [Right on Crime's] lead.”
The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently released a report on overcriminalization which I co-authored with my Right On Crime colleague, Marc Levin. The report, titled Engulfed by Environmental Crimes: Overcriminalizaton on the Gulf Coast, has received some attention across the internet after being the subject of features on FoxNews.com and The Washington Examiner.
In the report, we argue:
“’Ground zero’ for state-level overcriminalization may well be the United States Gulf Coast. Five U.S. states border the Gulf of Mexico—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—and between them, they have passed nearly 1,000 laws criminalizing activity along the coast. Criminal sanctions are of course appropriately applied to an individual who intentionally contaminates another person’s property. Too often, however, the activity that is governed by these myriad laws is non-blameworthy, ordinary business activity.”
We offer five recommendations to address the problem. First and foremost, we advise that states review their environmental regulations to determine whether criminal sanctions—in particular, prison—are appropriate. As former Texas state representative Jerry Madden says, ‘prisons are people we’re scared of, not people we’re mad at.’
Second, we advise states to strengthen the mens rea elements in their environmental criminal statutes. In environmental criminal prosecutions, offenders frequently lack the state of mind that would be necessary to convict for a traditional crime.
Third, we urge states to codify the rule of lenity and ensure that it is applied in environmental criminal cases. The rule of lenity is the canon of construction advising that vague criminal statutes be construed against the government and in favor of the defendant. It places a burden upon legislators to draft statutes as precisely as possible.
Fourth, we advise eliminating provisions that delegate to agencies the power to create new criminal offenses through rulemaking.
Finally, we encourage the adoption of safe harbor provisions. These provisions protect offenders from penalties if no harm has been done and the offender promptly acts to come into compliance.
The report is not limited to an abstract public policy discussion. In an appendix, the report documents several notorious incidents of overcriminalization throughout the Gulf states.
Louisiana state officials have decided to close another prison. The prison closure is the third in a series of closures aimed at decreasing budgetary strains within the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. In the first year alone, closure of those three prisons is estimated to save Louisiana taxpayers almost $9 million.
Importantly, these closures are easily effectuated without any resulting harm to public safety.
As of December of 2011 (from which we have the most recent available data), there were over 8,000 vacant prison beds across Louisiana – a fact that supports the closing of not only these three facilities, but additional facilities as well, to further ease the burden on Louisiana’s taxpayers.
After just a few months of operation, prosecutors and court officials agree: pretrial evaluations of defendants should be expanded in New Orleans.
The tool, which uses interviews shortly after arrest to objectively evaluate risk factors (or lack thereof), has been credited with aiding courts in New Orleans with information critical to making smart pretrial detention decisions. Based on an individual defendant’s risks and likelihood to reappear, the pretrial evaluation creates a recommendation on bail or detention decisions.
Even if the recommendation is not ultimately wholly adopted (judges still, as always, make the final call), court officials still find the information highly useful. The evaluation both flags those who pose serious safety risks and should be detained, as well as those who can be safely released prior to their court date, freeing up valuable jail beds.
New Orleans prosecutors and court managers would like the program expanded to include more defendants—its current capacity stretches to just about 60 percent of persons accused of felonies. The assessments curry broad support, from the Sheriff to prosecutors and judges.
An interesting new report released on Michigan juvenile offenders reveals that most states do not use juvenile life-without-parole (“JLWOP”) sentencing. The few that do use it, however, use it often. Specifically, two-thirds of all “JLWOP” sentences have been issued by just five states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Louisiana, California), while in the past five years most states (39) only issued zero or one JLWOP sentence each year. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide two cases related to the constitutionality of this hotly debated issue.