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Mass Incarceration is a Problem
Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson
Wants Fixed

May 19, 2015
William C. Hubbard

At a summit she convened Monday to discuss Louisiana's scandalous distinction as the world's foremost incarcerator of its people, Bernette Johnson, chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, said that she had deliberately chosen the attendees. She wasn't there to host a debate or to hear from folks who don't want to move the state in a new direction. "We're not here to convince anybody of the problem," she said. She wanted a discussion driven by people who are already convinced.

The chief justice somehow managed to avoid winking when she said everybody in the room was committed to addressing what she called "over incarceration." There was at least one sheriff and a couple district attorneys at the table, and, as a group, Louisiana's sheriffs and district attorneys have blocked sensible criminal justice reform.

Just last week the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association and the Louisiana District Attorney Association severely weakened a bill by Rep. Austin Badon that, among other things, would have prevented prosecutors from using marijuana possession convictions to give habitual offenders harsher sentences.

In South Carolina, though, a white conservative sheriff turned lawmaker was persuaded by a black defense attorney that the Palmetto State had a problem. A prison population that was 9,000 in 1983 had grown to more than 25,000 in 2009, and correctional costs had similarly exploded from $64 million to $394 million.

William C. Hubbard, the president of the American Bar Association, was the source of the information about South Carolina. He told the room South Carolina's criminal justice overhaul passed both chambers of the state Legislature "almost unanimously," maybe because its main two advocates brought together such different constituencies.

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