Editorial: Louisiana prison population presents problems

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.