Governor John Bel Edwards, in Washington Thursday to lobby the lame duck Congress for more flood aid for the state, didn’t equivocate while participating in the U.S. Justice Action Network’s Google Summit on Criminal Justice Reform.
“Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It’s unacceptably high,” the Governor said, adding, “I don’t believe the people of Louisiana are innately more sinister or criminal than people elsewhere, and so I don’t know why we put more of them in prison.”
What he does know is that Louisiana’s high poverty rate is a contributing factor to the incarceration rate, and that convicting and imprisoning people is keeping the poverty cycle going.
“We are preventing them from being able to get gainful employment, support themselves and their family. And you almost are directing them into a life of crime, because everybody’s going to find a way to eat.”
In addition, Edwards said prison often only teaches those locked up how to be “better criminals”.
Having faced a constant litany of budget deficits in his first year in office, the governor also pointed out the high incarceration rate is costing taxpayers plenty.
“We are spending $600-million a year on our Department of Corrections in Louisiana – a lot of money, quite frankly, that we can’t afford anymore.”
Edwards touted the task force that’s working on a criminal justice reform package for the 2017 legislative session, saying they’re looking at ways to avoid locking people up, as well as ways to return those currently imprisoned gainfully back into society.
“As we decrease the amount of prisoners, we don’t try to pocket all the savings, but we actually reinvest them to make sure that the system works,” he said of the need to amplify diversion and re-entry programs in Louisiana.
The governor wants to alter attitudes, as well as Louisiana’s ranking at the top of the “lock ‘em up” list.
“There are some people who are very satisfied with the status quo,” he said. “But we’re going to commit ourselves to being smarter on crime and not just reflexively tough on crime, because that’s gotten us where we are today and we just simply can’t stay there.”