Cindy Chang of The Times-Picayune hit the ball out of the park yesterday with her insightful and extensive report about the machinations and the inner-workings of the Louisiana prison system. Her report, titled “Louisiana is the world’s prison capital,” should be required reading for anyone and everyone who cares about the Gret Stet; it’s transcendental, award-winning journalism. But more importantly, it’s also a devastating indictment of a system that intransigently incentivizes widespread incarceration, the prison as profit center.
The numbers don’t lie: Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We lock up more of our citizens, per capita, than countries subjected to the rule of brutal dictators or totalitarian regimes– more than Iran, more than China, more than Saudi Arabia, more than Mississippi.
Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the United States. Poverty has a direct correlation to crime, particularly violent crime. Therefore, it should not be unexpected we rank highly in this category. Having worked for the criminal justice system for a couple of stints over the years, the biggest problem is the war on drugs. Beyond regulation (and with very strict punishment, mind you) of drugs out of the hands of minors, at a certain point we’re going to have to let grown people make their own bad decisions.
The problem is (like the nearly unregulated migration across the southern border of the country) there is a rare, perverse confluence of interests. The traditional right loves the moral high ground of opposing the legalization of drugs (where I can see some sense in continuing to regulate hard drugs – there is simply no logical reconciliation in my mind of a society where alcohol and cigarettes are legal, but marijuana is illegal) because it is “naughty” in unspecified and un-G-dly ways, while the traditional left loves to be the nanny/protector, always trying to shield people from themselves.
THEN there is the business/government intersection that can be so lucrative for the right people at the right time and place. When “for profit” prison companies and elected officials (and in Louisiana, the Sheriff’s and District Attorneys remain, overwhelmingly, of the Democratic party) all gain profit and job security from a high incarceration rate, combined with a relatively nonsensical state and national policy regarding controlled dangerous substances, it would be shocking if we had anything OTHER than what was described in the T-P article.
I would make 3 changes that would probably cut our incarceration rate by 1/3 and violent crime across the state by 10 to 15 percent:
1- MASSIVE sentences, even for first offenses, involving drugs of transactional volume, combined with weapons at the same location (like 7 to 10 years, and up). There would be similarly enhanced penalties for transferring drugs to children.
2- Marijuana possession of user quantities would be a fine, akin to a seatbelt. (Full disclosure – I have never used any sort of recreational drug, including marijuana or alcohol – my vice is caffeine.)
3- User quantities of other hard drugs would result in fines and treatment, at least until the 4th or 5th offense before we get into incarceration. I think over time, certain drugs could end up being treated like marijuana in #2 above, but I would be hesitant in shocking the system further these initial changes at first.
I’m not saying this is a panacea, but it would be a reasonable, rational step in the right direction.