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States Trim Penalties and Prison Rolls, Even as Sessions Gets Tough


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Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate. But this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population, saving millions annually.

If lawmakers approve the changes, Louisiana will be following more than 30 states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, that have already limited sentences, expanded alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, or otherwise reduced the reach and cost of the criminal justice system. Many of those states say they have saved money while crime rates have stayed low.

In Washington, though, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has charted the opposite course. He announced last week that federal prosecutors should aim to put more people in prison for longer periods, adopting the sort of mass-incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.

His move — which he said would promote consistency and respect for the law — alarmed critics who feared that the Trump administration was embracing failed, even racist, policies.

Even more, Mr. Sessions’s approach conflicted with one of the few major points of bipartisan national agreement over the past decade, that criminal justice could be more effective by becoming less punitive to low-level offenders, treating root causes of crime like drug addiction, and reserving more resources to go after serious, violent criminals.

But if Mr. Sessions’s appointment has dampened the hopes of those wishing for congressional action to reduce incarceration, advocates say it has had little effect on state efforts.

“There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a group at the fore of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration rates. “There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act,” Mr. Levin said.

The consensus began with a cold, objective judgment that taxpayers were not getting a good return on investment for money spent on prisons. Bloated corrections budgets took money that could be spent on schools, roads or tax breaks, while many of those who went through the prison system went on to offend again.

Among Republicans and Democrats alike, concern also grew that too many nonviolent criminals who were no threat to society were being imprisoned and given little chance to reform and re-enter mainstream society.

Recently legislators in a few places, such as Florida and West Virginia, have gone against the tide, pushing for tougher sentencing related to the epidemic of painkiller addiction haunting many communities. But Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said: “That’s the only fly in the ointment. It’s a bit of a throwback.”

It has not hurt that early adopters included tough-on-crime red states like Texas, which began passing major criminal justice revisions in 2003. “It was a Nixon-goes-to-China thing, and was really helpful in letting other states know, ‘The water is warm; you can do this,’” Mr. Ring said.

In contrast, he added, Mr. Sessions’s directive flies in the face of state-level successes. “We’re going to double down on an approach everybody else has walked away from,” is how Mr. Ring characterized it. So far this year, Michigan and Georgia, which previously rewrote their criminal justice laws, have already approved a new round of changes.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population in Louisiana. Credit Pool photo by Bill Feig

In Oklahoma, where Mr. Trump handily carried every county in November, another vote was also popular: Residents approved by a 16 percentage point margin a ballot proposal calling on legislators to curb prison rolls and downgrade numerous drug and property crimes to misdemeanors from felonies.

“Basically, in Oklahoma we’re just warehousing people in prison, and we’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints,” said Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 2 incarceration rate.

The state is now considering how to heed the voters’ advice, including debating major criminal justice changes. The effort faces opposition from district attorneys who have slowed some pieces of legislation, but the proposals have the firm backing of Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.

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