La. Gets Lenient With Nonviolent Offenders

In the 1980s and 1990s, with Louisiana experiencing a surge in crime, state Sen. John Hainkel helped write and pass tough new sentencing laws.

Now, he makes a startling admission: It "didn't work at all."

Too many nonviolent drug criminals got put away, he said. The prison population doubled. The cost tripled. And the crime rate barely dropped.

He said Louisiana simply cannot afford the system he helped design.

"I am a fiscal conservative — a strict fiscal conservative," said Hainkel, the Republican state senate president. "And it made no sense whatsoever, from either a financial viewpoint or a moral viewpoint, to put people in jail that didn't need to be in jail."

So Hainkel recently helped pass a new law that drastically reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Hainkel's change of heart comes as a recent ABCNEWS poll shows Americans favor less strict punishment for nonviolent offenders. Eighty-nine percent said they preferred sentencing first-time drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, and 76 percent said they opposed requiring life in prison for third-time nonviolent offenders under "three-strikes" laws. See poll.

Another Chance for Prisoners

The new Louisiana law went beyond lighter sentencing of nonviolent offenders, and included a provision to take 2,000 inmates sentenced under the old laws and set them free.

Eligible inmates can apply to a panel that decides whether to pass on their names to the pardon and parole boards.

Southern Simms, who got a 16-year sentence after his first arrest for selling a small amount of crack, made the cut.

"Mr. Simms, the board has recommended favorable on your application," the panel told Simms at a recent hearing.

Simms later said he would use his second chance to avoid trouble — and jail.

"After I do what I got to do in prison, I can't come back," he said. "I ain't coming back."

Hainkel said inevitably some released inmates will commit more crimes. But he'd rather take that risk than stick with a system that has failed, he said.

"It's difficult," Hainkel said. "But it's better to admit that what you did was not a proper solution than to keep defending it when you know it's wrong."

His new plan is to spend more on education, so that fewer people commit crimes in the first place.

This time, he said, he hopes he's right.