Groups plan legislative push for justice reinvestment

Post Date: February 16, 2017

Originally seen in The News Star

Offenders need substantive programs to move forward from a criminal history.

Elain Ellerbe, state director for Louisiana Right On Crime, said reform work on this front has been accomplished over the past several legislative sessions, and the creation of a Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force in 2015 is providing the state with an opportunity to maintain public safety while identifying opportunities to implement cost savings measures.

Right on Crime is a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and advocates for the application of conservative principles to criminal justice policy.

In a The News-Star editorial meeting, Ellerbe highlighted the work of the task force, the planned March announcement of task force findings and recommendations and the 2017 legislative session as an opportunity to bring the people who would be most impacted by a change in policy — prior offenders — before legislators so lawmakers can learn first hand about the needs and the possibilities.

Right on Crime and the larger Smart on Crime coalition in Louisiana have identified possible solutions, such as strengthening prison alternatives, streamlining parole, sentencing alignment and tailoring fines and fees to ability to pay, for drivers of the Louisiana prison population.

Right on Crime advocates for a cost-effective approach to public safety with prisons utilized as a solution for dangerous offenders and career criminals but not for nonviolent, low-risk offenders.

Ellerbe also said a focus on providing quality programming in prison is a key to success when an individual is released.

“Eighteen thousand people come out of the state (jails) every year,” Ellerbe said. “Of that, almost 4,000 come out of state-run facilities where there is a proliferation of programming. There are 14,000 coming out of local jails and detention centers where many times there is not as much programming and that is really the crux of the matter here. We have got to figure out how to get programming down to every facility.”

Reinvesting funds saved from reducing the incarceration of certain offenders is a possible path.

Woods Watson, volunteer director for the NELA Reentry Coalition, said the community suffers when an individual is either reincarcerated after their release or fails to become a productive member of society. The local coalition has identified three major things people need when they are released.

“One is safe and affordable housing,” Watson said. “Usually it’s safe but not affordable or affordable but not safe. Second is getting employment…many times if they can get a job, it’s not much of a job…Everything else is grouped under support services. Support services can be anything from transportation to substance abuse treatment, mentoring.”

When the legislative session begins, Ellerbe said her organization plans to be on hand to provide legislators with information, answer questions and to share the testimony of individuals.

John Burkhart, Criminal Justice Reform Fellow for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said people across the state and political spectrum want to see changes on the justice reinvestment front.

SPLC plans to ensure that the work of the Pew Center, which is providing technical assistance to the task force through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, doesn’t go to waste.

“After the recommendations go out, and the bills are drawn up, we want to be sure our coalition members are able to continue to project their voices into the legislative chambers during this debate,” Burkhart said.