Jindal seeks release for nonviolent drug offenders
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday he'll push for sentencing changes that would let some nonviolent drug offenders out of prison early if they complete an intensive treatment program.
The measure, to be debated by the Legislature in the session that begins in April, is part of a package of bills aimed at bolstering treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders, keeping young people out of detention facilities and reducing the likelihood that prisoners will return to jail after being released.
The changes, Jindal said, also will cut the costs of prison operations in a state with repeated budget shortfalls and with more people in prison per capita than any other state in the country. Louisiana has a larger proportion of drug and nonviolent offenders in prison than the national average and gives nonviolent offenders longer sentences, he said.
"By focusing our resources on rehabilitating those who can be rehabilitated, nonviolent, nonhabitual offenders ... it allows us to free up resources and truly focus on locking up those that need to be locked up," the Republican governor said.
Jindal proposes to expand Louisiana's drug court program, which allows people arrested on drug crimes to be placed on probation with heavy monitoring. Successful completion of the program ends with the crime expunged from a person's record.
The governor also wants to create an early release program for nonviolent criminals jailed on first and second offense charges involving drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. They'd have to serve at least two years of their sentence, have less than one year left in prison and complete a 90-day treatment program, along with other criteria.
The state would pay for the treatment, with reimbursement from the offender based on a person's ability to pay. Jindal said an estimated 500 people annually could be eligible for the early release program, with a net savings of $2 million each year.
"In this state for too long we've pushed that locking people up is better than rehabilitating them," said Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, applauding the governor's proposals.
Also in the package of proposals, two bills would change Louisiana's method of dealing with at-risk youth, restructuring existing programs that Jindal said have sent too many children to detention facilities and into the court system.
They would steer children in trouble for truancy, school rule violations and other noncriminal offenses to social services and mental health programs, rather than into juvenile detention facilities.
"If we help them now, we can prevent them from becoming violent criminals," Jindal said.
He said many of the children are from abusive homes and need intensive assistance, rather than jail time.
Juvenile justice advocates and Democratic lawmakers who have pushed for lessened sentences and increased treatment for adult drug offenders praised Jindal's proposals.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said Jindal's proposals place treatment as a priority and could help cut down the "cradle-to-prison pipeline."
MELINDA DESLATTE,Associated Press