Louisiana moves to cut prison time
ANGOLA, La. —When he was young and strong, Clyde Giddens fought with a man and stabbed him to death, leading to a life sentence for murder. Fiftyfive years later, Giddens, 76, uses a wheelchair and a hospital bed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, after breaking a hip and suffering a stroke.
He hoped a proposal to release old and sick violent offenders in Louisiana would allow him to live with his niece in Shreveport, La.
“I’m no longer a danger,” Giddens said last month at Angola, his voice barely above a whisper.
But in a deal announced Tuesday, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed to drop the proposal to offer early parole to geriatric prisoners in exchange for state district attorneys’ support for easing penalties for nonviolent offenders — changes that aim to reduce Louisiana’s prison population by 10 percent in a decade.
It’s a landmark agreement for Louisiana, which locks up residents at a rate twice the national average, making it the country’s biggest jailer per capita. An unusual coalition of business and political leaders, religious groups and liberal activists has been working to end the state’s ignominious distinction with a package of bills that would shorten some prison sentences, prevent certain nonviolent offenders from going to prison and expand eligibility for parole.
The changes would come asU.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moves federal sentencing in the opposite direction, toward stricter penalties. Last week, he directed federal prosecutors to impose charges that carry the most severe sentences, a reversal of the Obama administration’s practice.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said Friday. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
In Louisiana, district attorneys and sheriffs opposed early release for old convicted murderers and rapists.
“They’re going to risk public safety andwewould go back on the promises to victims that were raped and the families of those who were killed,” said Bo Duhé, a district attorney in the state, before the deal withEdwardswas reached.
Edwards argued that the sentencing changes would make Louisiana safer by saving money that the legislation shifts to programs that help prepare inmates to re-enter society and stay out of trouble.
Other proponents point to studies showing that former inmates become less likely to commit crimes as they age, a phenomenon they call “criminal menopause.”
But Tuesday’s deal means Louisiana will remain one of two states that keep felons convicted of second-degree murder behind bars for life. It is likely that the state legislature will approve the bills related to nonviolent offenders before its regular session ends June 8.
The state Senate on Tuesday easily approved major components of the deal reached with law enforcement officials.
“This compromise package contains smart, aggressive reforms that will certainly improve public safety,” Edwards told reporters Tuesday.
The effort is part of a national campaign to reduce state prison populations, which soared after decades of “tough on crime” tactics.
More than 30 states have adopted some form of “smart on crime” policies aimedat reducing thenumber of people behind bars, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“We grew old together,” Clyde Giddens, 76, said of health care orderly, Donald Murray, 63, at the nursing unit of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Murray is one of the few select inmates who take care of other aging inmates at the prison.