Incarceration rates plummeted throughout the country during the COVID-19 pandemic as many police departments stopped enforcing low-level offenses while courts agreed to release non-violent offenders to prevent the spread of the disease behind bars. In total, the number of people held in federal, state and local jails fell from 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million at midyear 2020, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice

This trend gave criminal justice reform advocates hope that the United States, the world’s biggest jailer, was gradually moving away from mass incarceration. But in the past several years, momentum appears to have stalled and even started to backslide in a handful of states, including Louisiana.

Louisiana’s incarceration numbers are down 9.8 percent since 2019, but there has been a steady uptick over the past two years. In 2020, 40,885 people were being held in either prisons or local jails in the state. By the fall of last year, that number increased by nearly 3,400.

“In the last decade, it’s been far more common to see state prison populations declining relatively rapidly, not these big increases,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, who co-authored the Vera report, “People in Jail and Prison in 2022.” “And so, we’re concerned that this might be part of a new trend.”

The cause of this slow but steady increase is a “patchwork of different state and local” factors, according to the report. Between mid-2021 and fall 2022, a total of 34 states increased the number of people in prison, with several implementing “policies to increase prison capacity, slash good-time credits, limit parole, expand truth-in-sentencing provisions, and otherwise lengthen sentences,” the report’s authors wrote.

“It is clear that not every state is using pandemic-related prison population declines to move toward ending mass incarceration,” the authors wrote. “Instead, some states are embracing increasingly punitive policy.”

The fastest surge in population has taken place in jails, particularly in “suburban counties of large metropolitan areas, followed by small and midsize metro counties.” At the Orleans Justice Center, for example, the population stood at 918 in March of 2020 during the start of the pandemic and dropped to as low as 720 in May 2021. This week the jail’s population was 1,072, a 49% increase, according to the New Orleans City Council jail population dashboard.

Much of this can be attributed to a return to pre-pandemic law enforcement strategies fueled, in part, by a fear of increasing crime rates across the country. Last year, New Orleans experienced 265 murders, which was the highest total since before Hurricane Katrina, more than 17 years ago.

Will Snowden, director of Vera’s New Orleans office, fears that not only will a more aggressive approach by law enforcement reverse the reductions to prison and jail numbers made during the pandemic, he fears it will put at risk the state’s 2017 criminal justice reform efforts. The package of 10 bills passed that year resulted in a 24% decline in the state’s prison population over the first five years, and saved taxpayers $153 million, according to a report by the state Department of Safety & Corrections and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement..

In this year’s legislative session, however, a host of bills were passed that could roll back those gains, Snowden said.

“I think the fact that we are seeing an increase in violent crime, they just capitalize on that narrative,” he said. “Legislators just anchored their arguments in this emotion of fear, which is really powerful.”

The Vera Institute of Justice recently sent a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards asking that he veto five bills passed by the legislature including one the governor previously vetoed last year. That bill would extend the time a person must serve before becoming parole eligible from 25 percent to 65 percent of the sentence on a fourth or subsequent non-violent felony. 

Another bill, which sends juveniles to the adult prison system for certain crimes, would reverse legislation Edwards signed into law in 2016 that required 17-year-olds to be charged and sentenced as juveniles, and held in juvenile detention facilities.

The other three bills reinstate a mandatory minimum of prison time for simple burglary; remove protections recently enacted to restrict the dissemination of people’s mugshots to protect innocent people from the stigma of arrest; and create a “dangerousness” assessment for the court to consider upon sentencing. As of Wednesday (June 28) afternoon, Edwards had signed the burglary-sentencing and mugshot bills into law. The others were still awaiting executive action. 

“Louisianans cannot afford to return to our prison capital status of the past,” Snowden wrote Edwards. “The above bills will get us there while worsening public safety.”

Snowden said he fears the backward movement will only accelerate should voters elect Attorney General Jeff Landry in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

“What we saw this cycle is really foreshadowing the types of things that we might see next session,” he said. “They’ll be taking advantage of a supportive governor who used to be the attorney general, who clearly wants to get back to this kind of law and order, tough on crime administration.”

The Vera report is not, however, without good news for criminal justice reform advocates. Though there have been increases in prison and jail populations, the overall number of people incarcerated across the country is still near its reduced 2020 level of 1.8 million. Kang-Brown said he believes that is the product of a surging job market and need for workers, which has shown to be an effective way to ensure that people stay out of prison is to keep them employed.

“Normally, you see a huge revolving door in relation to prisons and jails where people are being sent right back in,” Kang-Brown said. “But these kinds of economic conditions benefit formerly incarcerated people and help them keep afloat. People are less likely to get involved in other kinds of things when they’re working.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...