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Editorial: Louisiana prison population presents problems

Last Modified: Friday, November 01, 2013 6:20 PM

Louisiana is number one in the world for the number of people serving time in prison. That is a grim statistic that presents the state with all sorts of problems. The cost is tremendous for taxpayers but bringing those statistics down without endangering the public won’t be easy.

An unusual group made up of both liberals and conservatives recently met at the University of New Orleans’ Jefferson campus for a discussion of how to reduce the state’s incarceration rate, without harming public safety.

In the past two decades, Louisiana’s prison population has doubled, costing taxpayers billions of dollars. At the same time, the state’s prison industry is a thriving economic engine for many parishes.

Controlling the costs of maintaining the state’s prison population is critical, the panel members agreed. One way, according to Judge Federicka “Ricky” Wicker of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, is to move bedridden inmates to hospitals. Wicker said Louisiana has already transferred millions of dollars from the general fund to cover the medical expenses of inmates, but the number of prisoners requiring care continues to grow. The impending crisis will “skyrocket” by 2017, she said, because of the aging of those inmates who were sentenced as the Louisiana law that requires convicts to serve 85 percent of their sentences took effect.

Wicker’s proposed solution would allow for something called medical probation. Currently, ill inmates stay in prison, where the costs of their care is covered by the state. If they are transferred to hospitals or licensed hospice facilities, the inmates’ care would be covered under Medicare or Medicaid, Wicker said.

“These guys are on their death bed — the difference is whether they die in a hospital bed in a hospital, or die in a hospital bed behind Angola’s walls,” said state Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie.

The challenge of changing sentencing laws is particularly difficult in Louisiana, Wicker said. She noted that many states she identified as southern and conservative, such as South Carolina and Texas, were able to push through changes within a year of identifying problems; incarceration rates in Texas, particularly, have dropped. The Louisiana Sentencing Commission, however, has made only modest gains since 2009. “Our culture is one of high sentencing,” Wicker said, so “our work is incremental.” Wicker serves on the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, as does Lopinto.

“It’s politics,” chimed in Lopinto. “No one got elected by saying ‘I’m going to go up to Baton Rouge and let a bunch of people out of jail.’”

The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which sponsored the discussion along with the ACLU, has been working with the Texas Public Policy Foundation to develop model legislation. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, don’t have to do anything exotic or creative,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute. “We just have to look at what other states are doing.”

This is a thorny problem that needs to be worked out. We didn’t get into this mess quickly and we won’t likely come out of it quickly either. But at least all parties now recognize we need to find better, less expensive ways to handle sentencing and the prison population without endangering the public.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Mike Jones, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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