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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Now the pushback against prison reform. America's prison population has begun to decline, thanks to reform efforts that are being embraced in some very red states. Texas has been leading the pack, changing its system to divert more offenders away from prison and into drug treatment and work-release programs. Still, not everyone is on board, especially when you start talking about eliminating prison time for drug offenders. NPR's Martin Kaste recently went to Louisiana, the state with the country's highest incarceration rate, to listen to that pushback up close.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Marie Collins is a deputy with the Lafayette Sheriff's Department, but she doesn't want to be called a deputy. You'll see why in a second. She is short in stature, but high in energy. She's one of those people with a treadmill desk, and she loves it. She's also our guide here inside the Lafayette Parish Jail.
MARIE COLLINS: I'm going to take you up to the penthouse first.
KASTE: The penthouse?
COLLINS: It's just the fifth floor, but I like to call it the penthouse.
KASTE: Like so many jails in America, this one is overcrowded. It holds more than twice the number of people it was originally designed for. That's on a good day. Collins points out the mattresses on the floor in the common spaces.
COLLINS: All the cells are full, and in order to be able to have enough people in here, we're allowed by the fire marshal to have these beds in the floor. So these people actually sleep on these mattress-type cots.
KASTE: Some of these people are waiting for trials. Others are serving time. In Louisiana, parish jails also hold state prisoners. Collins says, when you look at the inmates' rap sheets here, there's one very common denominator.
COLLINS: At least 80 percent of the offenders have some type of substance abuse issue that got them here. There's no question.
KASTE: And now here's where Lafayette is different. The sheriff's department has decided to get into the drug treatment business, in a big way. To show us, Collins leads us out of the jail into a pleasant looking building next door. Its the Acadiana Recovery Center. Collins is actually a counselor by trade. That's why she doesn't carry a badge or a gun. And she manages this center for the sheriff's department. The goal here is to try to get as many people as possible out of the jail and into treatment, either here or at some other program outside the jail. Collins says this approach is saving the sheriff's department money.
COLLINS: To keep them in the jail would cost $54 a day. To keep them in programs on the outside, it's about $33. You keep them in a work release facility - it's like, they pay a sliding fee scale based on their job - you actually make money.
KASTE: Now Lafayette's programs are not free of controversy. Collins says they often come under fire, especially from angry bloggers.
COLLINS: Why are we giving them any privileges? You know, they should get, you know, bread and water, and those really archaic-type terms. But what they don't realize is that, when we get these people out, we actually put them into jobs, and now they're paying back their debt to society. So they're paying their bills. They're paying their child support. They're paying taxes.
KASTE: And increasingly, these arguments are catching on, even among conservatives. For libertarians, it's all about curbing the power of government to lock people away. For the religious right, it's about giving people shot at redemption. And those sentiments are getting harder to ignore here in Baton Rouge.
In the marbled halls of the art deco Capitol that Huey Long built, legislators cannot help but be aware of the state's prison population. That's because the prisoners are right here in front of them. They work here, dressed in gray jumpsuits and under guard, they wander the halls of the Capitol emptying garbage cans. And they're down in the cafeteria, serving lunch to the lawmakers and lobbyists.
LIZ MANGHAM: I'll bring you a dollar. I got you, babe.
KASTE: That's Liz Mangham, in line for the chicken-fried steak. She's the lobbyist for the coalition of conservative groups that's been pushing for incarceration reform. They've made some headway - some mandatory minimum sentences have been loosened, and parole is now a little easier to get. But when they tried to roll back sentences for possession of marijuana, they hit a brick wall. Mangham recalls the scene this Spring when that bill came up for a hearing.
MANGHAM: Jud C room, the judiciary seat committee room, was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full. And the halls were full, of DAs and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill.
KASTE: The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs have a lot of political clout at the state level. Mangham calls them the courthouse crowd. She says it's understandable why most sheriffs oppose the bill. Their departments are paid extra for every state prisoner they keep in their jails.
MANGHAM: So, when you're making money to warehouse prisoners, why on Earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform or anything like that?
KASTE: And the DAs, well, they like the extra leverage that the pot laws give them when they're pressuring defendants to take a deal. But there's also more going on here. There's a fear that loosening drug laws too much could cost lives. Just as these reformers were trying to eliminate prison time for pot, Louisiana was reeling from a new crisis with heroin. Joseph Lopinto is a Republican state representative from Metairie.
CONGRESSMAN JOPEPH LOPINTO: Deaths have increased drastically from five deaths to 35 deaths in just one parish, here, over a two-year period - where people are being found dead with the needle still in their arm.
KASTE: So Lopinto proposed a bill to require prison time for heroin possession, even on the first offense. It didn't pass, but it got considerable support.
LOPINTO: I would like, in a perfect world, I would like everybody that's on heroin right now to go get treated. Go get treated, before you have that run-in with law enforcement. But most of the time, when that come-to-Jesus moment happens, it's because of law enforcement.
KASTE: Even Marie Collins admits that prison has its uses. She's the counselor in Lafayette who'd rather see people in treatment. But she says prison can be a powerful motivator for addicts to stick with the program. But if you're going to threaten drug users with jail time, that threat has to be credible. Someone has to be the example. And sometimes, those examples can be extreme.
Nobody knows this better than Lisa Ladd. Her 27-year-old son, Corey, was convicted last year for possessing pot.
LISA LADD: That is what he's in prison for right now. Three-peat offender for marijuana - 20 years.
KASTE: She asked to meet a coffee shop in suburban New Orleans. She wheels around an oxygen tank, but she still works a job, especially now that she has to raise her prison son's infant daughter. She seems dumbfounded by what happened to Corey, though she admits he did have prior convictions. She just never dreamed he would be sent to prison for half an ounce of marijuana.
LADD: He broke the law. He does deserve some sort of punishment - but 20 years? That's just - the scales of justice are just so way off balance. They really are.
KASTE: But as Ladd talks about Corey, she seems distracted and finally she chokes up.
LADD: It's extremely hard. Excuse me. I'm sorry.
KASTE: I'm sorry.
LADD: (Crying) I just lost a son.
KASTE: I just lost a son, she says. And after a second, it becomes clear that she's not talking about Corey. She's just lost another son - a younger son, 23-years-old. He died of a drug overdose. Lisa just got the paper work from the corner. It looks like it was a mix of pills and heroin. Their younger son did not have the kind of legal troubles that Corey did. Instead of jail, he went for treatment in Florida, but it didn't take, and now he's the one who's dead. Would he still be alive if he'd had that come-to-Jesus moment with law enforcement, as Representative Lopinto puts it? It's that kind of question that's now dogging the states as they try to figure out the best way to deal with their still crowded prisons. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow morning, Martin Kaste takes a look at why many prosecutors are fighting the effort to reduce prison time for drugs.
KASTE: For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone's head 10 - 20 years of jail - that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want.
SIEGEL: That's on tomorrow's Morning Edition. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.