Get the Facts.
What is Louisianans for Responsible Reform?
You can call us LRR. We're a bi-partisan organization working towards drug policy and sentencing reform in Louisiana. We're building a coalition of government and community leaders to pass meaningful legislation and change the way we treat non-violent drug offenders in the criminal justice system.
More specifically, we want to
1) Reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses,
2) Redirect resources from excessive incarceration to more effective practices and programs,
3) Lessen criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
Is Louisiana really the "prison capital of the world?"
Louisiana has a higher incarceration rate than any other state or nation in the world. Since 1992, the state's prison population has nearly doubled in size, leading to ballooning costs and having a devastating impact on Louisiana’s families and communities. Louisiana incarcerates at a rate of 873 (per 100,000 people), which is significantly higher than the national average of 716 (per 100,000). When pre-trial detainees are counted, Louisiana's incarceration rate shoots up to a staggering 1,619 (per 100,000). No other state or nation in the world even comes close to that number.
One out of 87 adults are behind bars in Louisiana, which is double the national average.
But Louisiana's inmates are mostly violent criminals, right?
No, the majority of those incarcerated in the state are serving time for drugs and other non-violent offenses.
Because of Louisiana's harsh mandatory sentencing laws, a third-time nonviolent drug offense in Louisiana could mean a life behind bars without any possibility of parole or probation.
The business of convicting and incarcerating non-violent offenders, particularly those sentenced under the state's marijuana possession laws, is the key reason why Louisiana's incarceration rate earns it the distinction of "Prison Capitol of the World."
What does marijuana have to do with it?
Louisiana has the harshest marijuana policies in the country:
Possession of any amount (first offense) is a misdemeanor, punishable by 6 months in jail.
Possession of any amount (second offense) is a felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
Possession of any amount (third or subsequent offense) is a felony, punishably by up to 20 years in prison.
Additionally, because of Louisiana's mandatory minimums and multiple offense laws, possession of even a small amount of marijuana can mean decades of jail time. Under the "three strikes" law, a person arrested on a charge of marijuana possession who has been charged with three previous felonies will receive a mandatory sentence of 20 or more years in jail.
Reducing mandatory sentences for low-level, non-violent marijuana offenders would save millions -- or tens of millions -- of taxpayer dollars and help keep families intact. Sentencing reform is neither a liberal idea nor a conservative one; it's a SENSIBLE idea and the kind of reform that Louisianans want.
How many people are serving time for simple possession of marijuana?
In 2013, 1,372 Louisianans were serving time for simple marijuana possession with an average sentence of over eight years.
Are Louisiana's laws unusual?
While states around the country have reformed marijuana laws, reducing possession charges to misdemeanor offenses, Louisiana remains resistant. In 2004, Mississippi reduced all first and subsequent marijuana possession charges to a misdemeanor offense. Almost all Southern states, including South Carolina, Texas and Georgia, have followed suit. Louisiana stands alone in both the South and in the nation as a state that clings to the idea of marijuana possession as a felony complete with sentences typically reserved for violent crime.
How much do current laws cost taxpayers?
Louisiana's big prisons mean big costs to the taxpayers:
An inmate costs the state approximately $18,170 a year, $363,440 for a 20 year sentence, and upwards of $1 million for a life sentence.
In 2012, Louisiana spent $730 million on its 40,172 inmates.
In 2010, Louisiana spent $46 million enforcing marijuana possession laws.
Reducing marijuana possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors would save the state approximately $23 million per year in corrections-related expenditures.
What about mandatory minimum sentences? Do they work?
There is little evidence to suggest that mandatory minimum sentences contribute anything beyond a swelling prison population and at burgeoning cost to the taxpayer. A recent study by the Reason Foundation and Pelican Institute concluded:
Louisiana’s mandatory minimum prison sentences appear to do little either to rehabilitate or to deter the criminal behavior they ostensibly target. Meanwhile, the high imprisonment and recidivism rates for nonviolent drug offenders have contributed substantially to the dramatic increase in Louisiana’s prison population, and associated costs. Read more >>
Are Louisiana's marijuana laws racially biased?
Louisiana's marijuana laws have had a wildly disproportionate effect on African American communities:
While average marijuana use is equal between white and black users, black users are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Louisiana.
Of the 1,372 inmates incarcerated in 2013 for marijuana possession, more than 78% were black.
Of the 13,435 arrested in Louisiana in 2010 for marijuana possession, 61% were black.
In Tangipahoa Parish, blacks are 11.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites and in St. Landry Parish, blacks are 10.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested.
High incarceration rates have had a devastating effect on African American families:
One out of 7 black men in New Orleans are either in prison, on parole, or on probation.
One out of 14 black men in New Orleans are behind bars. Comparatively, one out of 141 white men in New Orleans are behind bars.
If reform is supported by the majority of Louisianans, why haven't legislators passed it?
Despite broad support for our efforts to reform the worst marijuana possession laws in the country, we continue to face an uphill climb. That’s because the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association have pledged to actively oppose our efforts. These two organizations have a powerful influence in state politics and a strong interest in keeping Louisiana’s draconian marijuana laws just as they are.
For the district attorneys it’s all about conviction records. Marijuana possession charges are an easy way for prosecutors to pad their conviction rates and maximize prison time for repeat offenders who have been accused of unrelated offenses.
For the sheriffs, it’s all about the millions in profits they bring in every year by incarcerating those sentenced to up to 20 years for marijuana possession. Over half of Louisiana's prisoners are housed in for-profit prisons owned by the state's 64 parish sheriffs. The state pays a per diem of $25 a day per prisoner, which translates to a whopping $182 million a dollars a year in pay outs.
Is this an abuse of power? Absolutely. The very people who are entrusted to enforce the law have deep financial ties to the for-profit prisons and major incentive to maintain Louisiana's high incarceration rates.
So what is LRR doing?
Our multi-pronged approach to policy reform involves lobbying, grassroots organizing, and public education and advocacy. We work with community and business leaders, allied organizations, and elected and government officials to assess the need for legislative change and advocate for those changes.
Most recently, we drafted and built a bi-partisan coalition around passage of SB 323, a Louisiana Senate bill that would have reduced criminal penalties for marijuana possession and saved the state $23 million a year. While our bill was recently tabled in the 2014 legislative session, it had bi-partisan support from legislators, current and former judges, and district attorneys. The bill was defeated in part because the Louisiana Sheriff's Association came out in full force to defeat it. No one ever said change was easy.
This fight is far from over. For us, it's just beginning. Stay tuned...