With Sweeping New Laws, Louisiana Embraces Tough-on-Crime Approach

In 2017, Louisiana overhauled its criminal justice system with broad bipartisan support, all in an effort to lose the distinction of having the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Sentences were reduced. Opportunities for parole were expanded. Alternatives to prison were introduced.

But seven years later, the state is sending a very different message: Those days are over.

Lawmakers, urged on by a new Republican governor, rushed through a special session last month to roll back the 2017 changes. Bills were passed to lengthen sentences for some offenses, to strictly limit access to parole, to prosecute 17-year-olds charged with any crime as adults and to allow methods of execution beyond lethal injection. The latter change is meant to allow the state to bring back capital punishment after more than a decade.

“I promised the people of this state, if elected governor, I would do everything within my power to improve the safety of our communities,” Gov. Jeff Landry said as he declared victory when the session concluded last week. “I can proudly say we have kept that promise.”

Mr. Landry, who took office in January, and his supporters argue that the new stringent measures are necessary to crack down on violence and crime, which soared in parts of the state during the pandemic. But critics contend that the new laws are variations of flawed past policies and would have the same consequences: punishing people of color disproportionately, obliterating hope and pathways to rehabilitation for prisoners, and foisting a staggering cost onto taxpayers.

“None of these bills are going to do anything to increase public safety or reduce crime in our communities,” said Sarah Omojola, the director of Vera Louisiana, a nonprofit group focused on reducing incarceration and preventing violence. “All these bills do is expand incarceration at a really high cost for Louisianans.”

While Louisiana has been particularly aggressive, other states have also dialed back efforts to experiment with new approaches to criminal justice. Lawmakers in Oregon, which had tried to decriminalize hard drugs, passed legislation last week to reimpose criminal penalties for possession of some drugs after public drug use and overdose deaths increased.

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