Friday, January 24, 2014

Update on the Safe and Fair Louisiana Forum

Left to right: Kevin Kane, Judge Ricky Wicker, Marjorie Esman
Last night, January 23rd, at the Abita Springs Town Hall, over 120 people attended a forum sponsored by the Pelican Institute and the ACLU. Ashley Rodrigue, of WWL TV, moderated the event, and the panelists were Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana; Kevin Kane, President, Pelican Institute for Public Policy; and the Honorable Judge Ricky Wicker, Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals & LA Sentencing Project. The discussion centered around criminal justice reform, the feasibility of lowering Louisiana's high numbers of prison and jail populations while also reducing taxpayer expenses and improving public safety. A very lively question and answer session followed the opening remarks of the panelists.

Marjorie Esman focused her opening remarks on statistics associated with Louisiana's prisons. The latest data from 2012, she stated, indicates that Louisiana has 40,000 convicted inmates in state prisons and 30,000 people in parish jails, many of whom are awaiting trial. The state department of corrections budget is $700 million, and, as a parish example, the Orleans Parish sheriff's department's budget is $69 million. Of the 40,000 in prisons, she said, 37% have been convicted of violent crimes. Of the thousands who are sitting in jails waiting for trial, most are those who are too poor to afford to post bail. According to Ms. Esman, Louisiana is the only state that sentences up to 20 years for third-time charges of possessing marijuana. These statistics indicate that the system is broken and needs to be evaluated and reformed.

Kevin Kane spoke next, recounting how his interest in prison reform was spurred by an experience he had at a conference in Washington, D. C.. With its focus on the free market and "liberty-oriented policy solutions," the Pelican Institute, while non-partisan, is politically right of center.  As president of the Institute, he described his own politics similarly and himself as a law and order type of person. At this conference in D. C., however, he attended a session led by a group from Texas that described the escalating prison population in Texas and how in 2007, the state faced building three more prisons to house 17,000 more prisoners. These numbers startled Texas officials and concerned citizens into action, and Texas began to implement prison and sentencing reform. By 2011, the state was able to close a prison rather than build another one. Aware of Louisiana's own huge prison population, Mr. Kane said that he is interested in exploring the reforms that Texas and other states have implemented, with the hope that Louisiana can fashion similar reforms. He said that he would want to do so cautiously, without compromising public safety or trying anything new and untested.

Lastly, Judge Ricky Wicker focused on the work of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission [Go here for a pdf report on the Commission, its members, and its work: "Louisiana Sentencing Commission, March 2012]. The Commission, she said, comprises 22 people from "all spokes of the government wheel." Among the group's goals is to discover ways to implement programs [job training, drug rehab, revising parole eligibility for first-time non-violent offenders, etc.] that will result in lower recidivism. Preliminary steps in improving programming have already resulted in very incrementally reducing prison population.  She added, "If we engage in programming , our recidivism goes down."  Our prison system, she emphasized, cannot afford the costs of 40,000 prisoners in the state system and the additional 70,000 under supervision. She also emphasized the importance of gathering information on which to base the decisions of any prison reform--"We deal in numbers"--and said that all the judges are doing work from which the commission is gathering data.  Judge Wicker also praised individual judges who are looking at specific data and piloting new programs, and she pointed out the good work of public defenders and local law enforcement who were in the audience.
Ashley Rodrigue (WWL TV), Kevin Kane, Judge Ricky Wicker, Marjorie Esman
The lively question and answer period that followed these opening remarks included personal testimony from the audience as well as questions addressed to the panelists. Several of the attendees spoke of concerns of racial disparity in sentencing. Statistics gathered by various research organizations, including the Sentencing Commission of the federal government, have given credence to these concerns, and one audience member asked if the state of Louisiana had any recent studies on racial disparities in the state prison system. Judge Wicker replied that Louisiana has not done such a study since the 1980s. [This is particularly troubling, as the War on Drugs really took root in the 1980s, with the prison population dramatically increasing since that time, along with charges of racial disparity in drug charges and sentencing.]

Others in the audience were worried about the effect of private prisons on escalating incarceration rates, about the increasing population of the mentally ill in prisons and jails, and about inhuman treatment of prisoners in isolation. Acknowledging the frustrations of some of the audience members who spoke publicly, Judge Wicker said that change is difficult because "the culture in this country is for high sentencing" and that "it's hard to unravel that culture." Asked whether or not the state district attorneys were all on board with the work that the Louisiana Sentencing Commission is doing and the changes that might result, the judge replied that support varied. She also described how the public defender system in this state is severely under-funded and could benefit from re-purposing money in the criminal justice system. Marjorie Esman reminded the audience that they have the power of the vote, and if they are dissatisfied with the work of their judges, district attorneys, and sheriffs, they should go to the polls and rally their neighbors to do the same. Kevin Kane emphasized that the work of the Pelican Institute is to do research and to present good accurate information so that legislators and the public can make decisions.

This large turnout in St. Tammany Parish indicates a real interest in prison and sentencing reform, and we so appreciate the panelists' taking time to meet with the public in this venue. Thanks are also extended to members of the League of Women Voters and of the Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force for their cooperative efforts in advertising the forum, to the many other local organizations that assisted in promoting the event, and to the town of Abita Springs for making the facilities available.  We hope that local officials and legislators are aware of the concerns of all those present and that we will have other opportunities for such a stimulating exchange as we had at the Abita Springs Town Hall.
Signing the sign-up sheets before the forum begins
Citizens sign in to indicate their presence at the Safe and Fair Louisiana forum.
Crowd gathering in the Abita Springs Town Hall before the forum begins
before the forum begins
shortly before the forum begins

questions for the panel

questions for the panel
District Defender/Supervisor, John W. Linder, II
[photos and text: Anita Dugat-Greene]

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