For decades, blue-ribbon commissions have debated the framework of Louisiana's penal system that has made the state a world leader in incarceration. Lawyers, jurists, sheriffs, and other experts have produced myriad analyses and recommendations, usually to no avail as tough-on-crime legislators, prosecutors, and judges increased penalties and made parole harder to get, says the New Orleans Times-Picayune. With tight state operating budgets putting a sharper focus on state prison population, now 40,000, at a cost of $663 million annually, without much evidence that it has led to a corresponding drop in crime -- the state legislature this year approved changes that in previous years probably would have gotten nowhere.
With the new provisions aimed only at nonviolent offenders, the question is whether the alterations portend a fundamental policy shift or simply mark incremental steps. For the first time, certain inmates sentenced to life without parole -- nonviolent offenders who drew their sentences under Louisiana's defunct "three strikes and you're out" law -- will be eligible for release. Other lifers, along with some second-time offenders, will be eligible for parole more quickly than under their original sentences. Two new judicial districts will operate "re-entry courts" aimed at helping released prisoners get job training and prepare to resume productive citizenship.