We can increase public safety while saving tax dollars.
Public safety is one of the most important functions of government. Mass incarceration, however, has made us less safe, even though nationwide it costs taxpayers about $75 billion each year.
I have been a prosecutor and a judge in both federal and state courts. I have presided over thousands of criminal proceedings. One thing I have learned is that Louisiana is not smart on crime.
Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. In 2015, Louisiana spent $622 million incarcerating 38,000 people. Unfortunately, our “tough on crime” approach has not resulted in greater public safety. Instead, it has increased cycles of poverty, unemployment and crime. It has also diverted funds from programs proven to prevent crime before it happens, such as early childhood education, job training, community mental health centers, and first-class substance abuse treatment centers.
We have 12 million arrests a year in this country, yet only 5% are violent offenders. The vast majority of arrests are for low-level crimes – 70-80%. Even more disturbing, two-thirds of prisoners across the country are simply awaiting trial. This is also true of 50% of the inmates in many of our local jails. Most of these pretrial detainees are jailed simply because they are too poor to afford the 12.5% premium charged by the commercial bail bondsmen. This means they lose jobs, and sometimes homes, eligibility for benefits, and family. Without another source of income, some of these detainees resort to learning how to be a better criminal while warehoused in jail. Studies show that high jail populations of low-level non-violent offenders lead to increased crime.
Do we really want to run schools for crime on the taxpayer’s dime?
Our current system criminalizes drug addiction, poverty, and mental illness. Families and communities are destabilized and our recidivism rate is through the roof.
The failed war on drugs has driven mass incarceration, which in turn has driven a prison-industrial complex for private financial gain. In this climate, there are incentives for high arrest rates, especially in poor communities, so that jail beds are kept full, and revenue streams from court assessments and fines can continue to fund local and state institutions. This cycle must stop. We must invest in people, not in crime.
The opioid abuse crisis is finally making us realize that drug abuse is not simply a law-enforcement problem that can be solved through arrests and prosecutions. We must address it with smarter public health policies and education.