Number of people in Louisiana prisons falls with law changes

Published 4:47 pm Thursday, June 28, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s prison population is dropping faster than expected after Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislators reworked criminal sentencing laws a year ago, according to early data about the overhaul released Thursday.

The state relinquished its title as the nation’s top jailer, with an announcement earlier this month that Oklahoma now has the highest incarceration rate in the country. But a new report also shows Louisiana’s prison population decline also exceeded state projections of the criminal justice overhaul’s impact.

“Shedding that title was just the beginning,” the Democratic governor said. “This is about making the people safer.”

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Louisiana had a prison population of more than 40,000 inmates in September 2012. It had fallen to about 33,000 in March with the changes enacted. Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said the number of people in Louisiana prisons is the lowest it’s been in 20 years.

Edwards touted data showing Louisiana is locking up fewer nonviolent offenders, decreasing prison admissions for property and drug crimes and cutting probation and parole caseloads.

The criminal justice changes championed by the governor expanded probation and parole opportunities and reduced sentences, mainly for nonviolent offenders. They eased some financial burdens inmates face upon release. And they required most of the savings from the reduction in prison population to be spent on treatment and training programs aimed at keeping exiting inmates from returning to crime.

The overhaul passed last year with a wide-ranging coalition of bipartisan support. Supporters said Louisiana — which spends about $700 million a year on correctional costs — should focus more on rehabilitation to improve public safety, noting that other Southern states have taken similar approaches.

“We were locking people up at double the national average and yet we had nothing to show for it. Our communities weren’t safer,” Edwards said.

Early releases of inmates have been controversial, however, as critics derided the changes as damaging to public safety. Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, a possible challenger to Edwards in the 2019 election, denounced the criminal justice redesign as “dangerous legislation.” Lawmakers tweaked the overhaul this year, changes that could keep more people under corrections supervision longer.

The report released Thursday by the corrections department and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement was the first performance review about the law changes. Since most of the changes began in August and November, the report warns the data is preliminary.

No information on recidivism rates was available to indicate if Louisiana was seeing fewer ex-inmates returning to prison with the changes.

Edwards said the savings from the criminal justice redesign also is higher than expected. That data will be released in a few weeks. Seventy percent of those dollars are required to be reinvested in education, training and support programs aimed at keeping people from reoffending and on victim services.

“The work is far from over,” LeBlanc said. “In fact, it has just begun.”