Louisiana no longer leads the nation in imprisonment, one year after enacting a landmark package of 10 criminal justice reform laws. In June 2018, Oklahoma became the U.S. state with the highest imprisonment rate, replacing Louisiana, which had been the nation’s prison capital for nearly 20 years.
The numbers are based on calculations by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which analyzed data from the state corrections departments and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. At the beginning of June, the imprisonment rate in Louisiana was 712 per 100,000 residents, compared with 719 per 100,000 residents in Oklahoma. Louisiana now ranks second in imprisonment. The numbers in both states far exceeded the national rate, including state and federal prisoners, which was 450 per 100,000 residents at the end of 2016.
The latest data reinforce a central lesson of criminal justice reform in the past decade: States’ policy choices can help control the size and cost of their prison systems and protect public safety.
Although implementation of Louisiana’s reforms is still in the early stages, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Commission on Law Enforcement released a report in June with some initial results that show quick and solid progress since the first pieces of legislation went into effect in August 2017. For example:
Louisiana became the nation’s prison leader nearly two decades ago after it adopted mandatory sentencing laws and restrictive parole policies that resulted in people being locked up for nonviolent offenses at rates far greater than the national average. In 2012, state officials made statutory and administrative changes that expanded evidence-based correctional practices. These efforts helped lower the number of prisoners by 9 percent from 2012 to 2015, while crime also declined. But state leaders decided in 2016 that additional steps could bring greater progress—while also ridding Louisiana of the dubious distinction of being the state that imprisons more of its citizens than any other.
Governor John Bel Edwards, State Senate President John Alario, State House Speaker Taylor Barras, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, and other state leaders sent a joint letter to Pew and the U.S. Justice Department requesting technical assistance for the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The officials said they were motivated not only by “budget pressures” but also by a desire to generate a greater public safety return on corrections spending.
After a year’s worth of data analysis and study by the task force, the Legislature in 2017 passed and the governor signed the most significant overhaul of criminal justice laws in state history. The package of 10 bills—sponsored by six Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent—steers people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison, strengthens incarceration alternatives, reduces prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community, removes barriers to re-entry into the community, and bolsters programs that support victims of crime.
Louisiana’s landmark reforms are perhaps the most dramatic example of a state taking greater control of its prison growth and spending, but many others have acted as well. More than 30 states have adopted reforms, spurring shifts in imprisonment rate rankings. In 2007, for example, Texas began investing hundreds of millions of dollars in various treatment and diversion programs. The state dropped from third place in 2008 to seventh by the end of 2016, the most recent year for which complete national data are available. In South Carolina, comprehensive reforms enacted in 2010 helped move the state from ninth to 20th.
Taken together, state sentencing and corrections reforms contributed to an 11 percent reduction in the nation’s imprisonment rate by the end of 2016 from its peak in 2008. And this downward trend occurred without interrupting the long-term decline in crime. From 2008 to 2016, the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 23 percent. Thirty-five states cut crime and imprisonment rates simultaneously, including 21 that posted double-digit declines in both over that period.
In Louisiana, state agencies are working to implement new policies, train staff, and advance justice reinvestment goals. The early signs of success are heartening, but much remains to be done. What’s happening in the Pelican State can motivate others to find better ways to improve public safety and make the best use of public dollars.
Adam Gelb is the director and Elizabeth Compa is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project.