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‘Incarceration capital of the world’ takes up bill to end life without parole

Is Louisiana ready to truly shed the label of “incarceration capital of the world” or will it continue to travel down the long road to nowhere? An answer may be provided soon, as Rep. Royce Duplessis’ House Bill to end life without parole (HB 490) will be heard this week during the Louisiana legislative session.

Earlier this year, my colleague, Delvin Davis, published “The Long Road to Nowhere: How Southern States Struggle with Long-Term Incarceration.” The publication provides a glimpse into Louisiana’s mass incarceration rates and how individuals serving life without parole (LWOP) affect those rates.

Here is an excerpt from Davis’ publication:

Louisiana, for many years, has worn the crown of “incarceration capital of the world” by having the highest imprisonment rates in the U.S, and by extension the world, given that the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. As of 2019, Louisiana incarcerated 887 people per 100,000 state residents, with Oklahoma ranking second at 840 per 100,000 people.[1]  Currently, Louisiana has 4,557 people in prison serving LWOP sentences — one in six people held in state custody.[2] The 4,557 people serving LWOP in Louisiana as of November 2020 is more than the latest reporting of people serving LWOP in Alabama, Georgia, New York, and Texas combined.[3] This does not include the additional 1,377 people who are serving “virtual life” sentences of over 50 years. If including people with virtual life sentences, one out of every five people in Louisiana prison custody has been sentenced enough prison time to ensure they will die behind bars. Louisiana’s lengthy sentences lock people in prison without regard to their ability to rehabilitate or successfully re-enter society.

Historically, the majority of all people sentenced to LWOP in Louisiana have been convicted of second-degree murder, which sentences a getaway driver the same as the person pulling the trigger.[4] Second-degree murder charges potentially criminalize nonviolent activity as a seriously violent offense. Prosecutors have taken advantage of this legal distinction to garner convictions without having to establish intent, negligence, or malice. Louisiana is one of only a few states in the country that gives LWOP sentences for second-degree murder convictions. Analyzing a recent roster of Louisiana prisons reveals that second-degree murder still makes up the vast majority of LWOP sentences, at 52.9%, while first-degree murder makes up only 16.2% of LWOP convictions.[5]

Also, of those serving LWOP sentences, 431 people were admitted to prison before the age of 20, with 109 of them admitted before the age of 18.[6] Today, these people are 45 years old on average. Incarceration before the age of 20 essentially eliminates any chance of redemption before reaching adulthood. Many studies have confirmed that the parts of the human brain responsible for rational judgment, impulse control, and long-term decisions do not finish developing until a person’s mid-20s.[7]

During 2017 legislative deliberations, lawmakers considered parole eligibility for anyone serving at least 30 years who was at least 50 years old, excluding those convicted of first-degree murder. Prosecutors opposed this with concerns of jeopardizing public safety. Since then, community advocates have pushed for parole eligibility for anyone with a life sentence who has served at least 30 years, and people with sentences of 50 years or more who have already served 20 years. Additionally, parole consideration for juveniles with life sentences allows youth a chance at redemption while saving millions of taxpayer dollars.

These recommendations rely on the belief that expanding parole eligibility does not come at a risk to public safety. People who have already served decades of their LWOP or virtual life sentence, or were admitted as juveniles, are now an average of 56 years old. A 56-year-old person has statistically aged out of violent criminal activity and is much less likely to reoffend.

Expanding parole eligibility for people with LWOP sentences, sentences of 50-plus years, and juveniles would impact an estimated 1,821 people currently incarcerated in Louisiana prisons. Release for these individuals would save the state over $35.1 million per year that could be used to reinvest in anti-recidivism initiatives and reentry support, and even slightly narrow the racial disparity within Louisiana’s prison population.[8]

As evidenced by Mr. Davis’ phenomenal report, LWOP continues to cost Louisiana millions of dollars, while providing no chance of redemption for those individuals currently serving life sentences. The members of the Louisiana Legislature have the rare opportunity to provide newfound hope to thousands of individuals who often feel forgotten — hope for a second chance and for a successful re-entry into society.

Terry Landry Jr. is policy director in the SPLC Action Fund’s Louisiana office.

Endnotes

[1] Carson, Ann E., Prisoners in 2019, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oct. 2020. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p19.pdf?utm_content=p19&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery

[2] Raw data of prison roster acquired via public records request from Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections as of Nov. 2, 2020.

[3] Data from FY 2019 annual reports from the respective Departments of Corrections of Texas, Alabama, and Georgia. New York data is from FY   2018, the most recent year available.

[4] Skene, Lea, Louisiana’s life without parole sentencing the nation’s highest — and some say that should change, The Advocate, Dec. 7, 2019. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/article_f6309822-17ac-11ea-...

[5] Analysis of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections raw data for incarcerated people in prison custody as of Nov. 2, 2020. 

[6] Analysis of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections raw data for incarcerated people in prison custody as of Nov. 2, 2020. 

[7] Diekema, Douglas S., Adolescent Brain Development and Medical Decision-making, American Academy of Pediatrics, May 18, 2020.  https://pediatrics.aappublications. org/content/pediatrics/146/Supplement_1/S18.full.pdf

[8] Analysis of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections raw data for incarcerated people in prison custody as of Nov. 2, 2020. Releases would close the black-white racial disparity in the prison population by an estimated 3.1%

Photo by AP Images/ Gerald Herbert