State sentencing changes could ease a number of burdens

Just last week, the Jennings Daily News wrote of the reasons this parish needs a new jail, and one of the reasons is overcrowding in prisons that leads to many criminals spending more time on the streets than in a cell.

On the flip side, there are ways the state could aid in freeing jail space. Jail does not necessarily change an offender for the better but other alternatives may help to rehabilitate such individuals while also easing taxpayer burdens and opening more jail cells for tougher criminals.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday he’ll push for sentencing changes that would let some nonviolent drug offenders out of prison early if they complete an intensive treatment program.

The measure, to be debated by the Legislature in the session that begins in April, is part of a package of bills aimed at bolstering treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders, keeping young people out of detention facilities and reducing the likelihood that prisoners will return to jail after being released.

The changes, Jindal said, also will cut the costs of prison operations in a state with repeated budget shortfalls and with more people in prison per capita than any other state in the country. Louisiana has a larger proportion of drug and nonviolent offenders in prison than the national average and gives nonviolent offenders longer sentences, he said.

Jindal proposes to expand Louisiana’s drug court program, which allows people arrested on drug crimes to be placed on probation with heavy monitoring. Successful completion of the program ends with the crime expunged from a person’s record.

The governor also wants to create an early release program for nonviolent criminals jailed on first and second offense charges involving drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. They’d have to serve at least two years of their sentence, have less than one year left in prison and complete a 90-day treatment program, along with other criteria.

The state would pay for the treatment, with reimbursement from the offender based on a person’s ability to pay. Jindal said an estimated 500 people annually could be eligible for the early release program, with a net savings of $2 million each year.

Also in the package of proposals, two bills would change Louisiana’s method of dealing with at-risk youth, restructuring existing programs that Jindal said have sent too many children to detention facilities and into the court system.

They would steer children in trouble for truancy, school rule violations and other non-criminal offenses to social services and mental health programs, rather than into juvenile detention facilities.

Jail is the place for many offenders who have committed serious crimes. Though purchasing or possessing illegal narcotics is a crime, addiction is not. We might not understand how or why a person became involved with drugs but jail does not always address those underlying causes. And because contraband is smuggled into facilities on a daily basis, being in jail does not necessarily mean someone will be in a sober environment. In the long run, incarceration does not always straighten out an individual and taxpayers’ dollars are wasted while more serious offenders are still running the streets.

Juvenile detentions centers are no better for many young offenders starting to roam from the narrow path. If anything, some of these kids who go into such centers for minor infractions come out more hardened than before. Just a few years down the road, they end up imprisoned for worse crimes that could have been prevented with better intervention.

Jail is not the answer for everyone and such restructuring within the state could aid everyone, from law enforcement and taxpayers to juveniles and those with addiction struggles.

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Posted by on Feb 21 2013. Filed under Editorial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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