It seems that public safety has always been an issue in Louisiana. CABL voter surveys going back a decade show crime as one of the top three concerns of citizens in Louisiana. For a few years the worries about crime seemed to be in decline. Surveys by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab starting in 2003 show that the percentage of people who felt crime was the most important problem facing the state fell steadily for awhile. But since the fall of 2006, that number has spiked appreciably and is now trending upward.
Of course, it is important to point out that crime is a complex issue. It has its roots in poverty, lack of education and lack of economic opportunity. Louisiana faces challenges in all of those areas. Crime is also very much a local issue. Just in Louisiana alone crime rates vary considerably from town to town. The robbery rate in the Lake Charles metro area is 126 per 100,000 residents versus just 65 in Monroe.
But while the local first responders are the ones that can have the most immediate impact on preventing or reducing crime, the state can play an important role, too, though perhaps in different ways. First, Louisiana should continue to work on the systemic issues that lead to crime and we are doing that in several areas.
For instance, evidence clearly shows that children that receive high-quality child care and pre-k education perform better in school, are more likely to graduate and less likely to get involved in crime. Similarly, making high schools more relevant for at-risk kids who probably won’t go on to a four-year college can keep them engaged in education and offer economic opportunities that are more attractive than involvement in crime. These are, to some degree, long-term solutions, but they represent areas where the state has made significant investments in recent years.
The state should also focus on intervention programs like drug courts and our recent reforms in the juvenile justice system. Drug courts have proven successful in many cases in breaking addictions and steering offenders away from the life of crime that’s needed to fuel their drug habit. Likewise, early intervention with young people who commit crimes can help turn them into adults who will not be repeat offenders, saving both lives and money.
In the long-term it’s clear that working on intervention and prevention are important ways to reduce crime in Louisiana. In the meantime, there’s something the state can do now which could help law enforcement improve public safety for citizens: create a model criminal justice information system that links all aspects of law enforcement, prosecution and the courts.
Why is that important? The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement notes that every major leap forward in the efficiency of law enforcement has been based in some way on information. From the wanted poster to the radio to computers, major advances in information technology have led to further advances in law enforcement. In many ways, Louisiana is already a leader in the use of information technology in law enforcement through something called the Louisiana Civil and Criminal Information Network (LACCIE).
Basically, it’s a network of information hubs that allow for the sharing, organizing and mining of law enforcement information among more than 160 law enforcement agencies across the state. What does it do? A lot. It gives law enforcement agencies immediate, real-time access to a vast array of data. With LACCIE, information that not too long ago might have taken weeks to get is now available immediately to assist in the identification and apprehension of offenders and the solving of major crimes. It is truly cutting-edge technology, but not enough.
While law enforcement in the state is widely connected to LACCIE, other parts of the criminal justice system are not. These include district attorneys, the courts and their counterparts on the federal side. Since all of them deal with thousands of offenders – many of them guilty of serious or violent crimes – they need the same access to information that law enforcement agencies have to ensure that these offenders are handled appropriately. A lack of immediate information about who they are dealing with could lead to inadvertent mistakes that could result in injury or loss of life.
Louisiana needs to build on the work of LACCIE and create a national model that links all of the criminal justice system in the state to improve their ability to protect the citizens of Louisiana.