America, land of the free, has earned the disturbing distinction of being the world’s leading jailer. Representing just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now hold 25 percent of its inmates. The “tough on crime” politics of the 1980s and 1990s fueled an explosion in incarceration rates. And Louisiana's numbers are more than double the U.S. average: 1619 prisoners per 100,000 residents. One of every 86 adults in Louisiana is currently mired in the criminal justice system. Worse, in Louisiana people are more likely than anywhere else to receive sentences of life without parole, which means that more and more people are serving time from which they will never be released.
And for lots of reasons, Louisiana spends less per prisoner than any other state. The state is poor, and one way to cut expenditures is at the expense of the incarcerated. When the federal government ordered Louisiana to reduce prison overcrowding, the state turned to a system of private prisons involving both for-profit companies and local sheriffs, rather than revisiting the draconian sentencing laws that led to overcrowding in the first place. The result? Powerful lobbies in support of long prison terms, and incentives to reduce spending per inmate in order to achieve maximum profit.
The ACLU has been fighting for years to fix Louisiana's broken criminal justice system, and newly-passed legislation may be the start of a turnaround. Thanks to a coalition called Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA), comprised of the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Voice of the Experienced, the 10-bill package is expected to result in a 10 percent reduction in Louisiana’s prison population and save the state $262 million.