The Louisiana legislature is in the midst of a heroin panic. A bill that breezed through the House on a 94-1 vote, and is now with the State Senate, would require anyone caught in possession of heroin — no matter how small an amount — to serve at least two years in prison. It would also double the mandatory minimum sentence for selling any small amount of heroin from five to 10 years in prison. Another bill that would allow 99 year prison sentences for heroin distributors just passed a Senate panel and is headed for a full vote.
Supporters of these increased penalties, including the Louisiana Sheriff Association and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, claim heroin use and trafficking has increased dramatically in the past year, and has resulted in an increased number of overdose deaths. Part of the reason for this, they said, is that the drug available on the streets is purer today than ever before.
Yet, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, just 0.3 percent of Americans 12 years-old and older used heroin in 2012 (the most recent year of data available), barely up from 0.2 percent in 2002. While it’s understandable legislators are concerned with overdose reports and the impact heroin can have on the health and well being of Louisiana citizens, their proposed solutions will hurt the people they should be trying to help and will cost taxpayers dearly as well.
And those taxpayers overwhelmingly oppose what their representatives are doing right now. A recent LSU Public Policy poll of 1,095 Louisianans found 72 percent of residents support shorter sentences for people who commit non-violent crimes like drug possession, while 22 percent oppose shorter sentences for non-violent crimes. State leaders are doing the exact opposite.
Louisiana already incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other state in the country because it has had harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws on the books for the past several decades. These laws require judges to sentence nonviolent drug offenders to years, or even decades, in prison for seemingly petty offenses.
Louisiana’s prisons and jails are already filled with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who pose little threat to anyone but themselves. Of course, drug users should be prosecuted for any violence, thefts or other crimes they commit. But throwing them into a jail cell for two years for possession of a small amount?
It’s counterproductive for the state, it prevents people from seeking the help they may need to break their addiction, and it hurts their chances of becoming productive members of society upon release. A felony record will inhibit many of these citizens from being able to gain meaningful employment, and it is something they will be forced to carry for the rest of their lives. This of course increases the chances that they will end up returning to their old habits, and eventually wind up back in prison — at taxpayers’ expense.
Requiring additional non-violent drug offenders to spend significantly longer periods in prison, as this new bill recommends, would only add to the state’s already astronomical prison costs.
As highlighted in an October 2013 study I co-authored for Reason Foundation, Pelican Institute, and Texas Public Policy Foundation, Louisiana’s annual corrections expenditures increased by $315 million between 1992 and 2011, from $442.3 million in 1992 to $757.4 million in 2011, when adjusted for inflation.
Other states, including Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina, however, are all scaling back their harsh sentencing laws for nonviolent offenses after realizing these laws had made their criminal justice systems inefficient and extremely expensive to maintain. For example, Texas passed a law that allows drug offenders convicted of possessing less than a gram of any drug to be sentenced to probation instead of prison. Since then, Texas has seen its prison population and crime levels decline, and it has saved its taxpayers millions of dollars.
In Louisiana, however, it seems that legislators are set on heading in the opposite direction.
If proponents of these mandatory sentences are concerned with the health and well being of Louisiana’s citizens, they should direct their concerns to increasing availability of voluntary drug treatment instead of adding to the state’s incarceration problem. It’s time for Louisiana legislators to catch up to other states and become smart on crime by opposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.
Lauren Galik is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This column originally appeared at Shreveport Times.