More Mental Health, Less Incarceration – Prison Reforms Launched

In an announcement this week, Gov. Edwards said that key parts of the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” a package of reform measures passed by the 2017 Legislature, will begin to be implemented. Certain inmates in Louisiana who are currently serving a sentence for non-violent, non-sex offenses, as defined by Louisiana law, will be released an average 60-90 days early. This is an effort to reduce the state’s incarceration rate, the highest in the nation, a pledge the Governor made in taking office.

“Louisiana’s label as having the highest incarceration rate in the nation may be part of our past, but it will not be a part of our future,” said Gov. Edwards.

The package of 10 pieces of legislation is designed to steer less serious offenders away from prison, strengthen alternatives to imprisonment, reduce prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community, and remove barriers to successful reentry.

“For more than a year, stakeholders from every walk of life in Louisiana publicly met to
thoroughly review our criminal justice system. Following a model set forth by other Southern,
conservative states, their goal was to make Louisiana a safer place for our children while
being smarter on crime than we have been in the past…” he said.

“Along the way, we will, undoubtedly, find areas where we can improve these changes,” the
Governor said, including “alternatives to incarceration.”

The effort is estimated to save approximately $262 million, with more than $180 million of
those savings being reinvested in programs that reduce the recidivism rate and empower offenders to leave a life of crime.

Louisiana is the latest state to enact such reforms; many others have experienced simultaneous drops in their crime and imprisonment rates. For example, the Texas incarceration rate is down 16% and crime down 30%. In North Caroline incarceration is down 16% and crime down 16%.

The House and Senate votes for S.B. 139 (the bill that includes changes to parole and good time) passed by 26- 11 in the Senate, 75-30 in the House, and then 20-13 in the Senate
concurrence.

This past June, Dr. Raman Singh, Director, Medical and Behavioral Health, Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, told psychologists at the Louisiana Psychological Association, that the leverage for dramatic changes in the state’s incarceration rate was to institute behavioral health reforms in the Louisiana criminal justice system.

Singh, a medical doctor and cardiologist by training, said, “Louisiana’s incarceration rate
contributes to over-representation of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.”

Dr. Susan Tucker, clinical psychologist and the Assistant Warden at the Bossier Parish
Medium Security Facility, and President-Elect of LPA, introduced Dr. Singh and explained the
significance of comprehensive psychological programs in the corrections and justice system.
Tucker developed the Steve Hoyle Intensive Substance Abuse Program nationally recognized for excellence.

In 2016 the Louisiana Legislature commended Tucker and her team in a House Concurrent Resolution pointing to multi-million dollar cost savings to the state because of shorter incarceration times of those offenders who participated in the psychological programs designed by Tucker.

Singh explained to the audience of psychologists and professors that the reasons for over-incarceration in Louisiana are well-established. Based on a 2016 Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s review Singh said the top reasons were mandatory sentences and habitual offender laws, high rates of local incarceration without treatment programs, and “not addressing issues driving criminal behavior such as substance and mental illness.”

“Incarceration of mentally ill exacerbates symptoms of mental illness. Rarely does incarceration of the mentally ill lead to an improvement in their mental status,” said Singh.

In a related story, in October Attorney General Jeff Landry wrote that taxpayers should be concerned about this “dangerous legislation.” He said that some of those released will
qualify for welfare and that the savings, targeted toward programs to help prisoners with addiction, mental health, and job skills, “…has apparently now morphed…” into more grants rather than taxpayer savings.

Governor Edwards replied that Landry should “Learn the Facts, Stop the Fear Mongering,” in a press release this week.

 

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