- Lisa Sendrow
Louisiana’s Criminal Justice System Overhaul – Aspiring for More, Settling for Less
On November 1, roughly 1,400 non-violent offenders will be released from Louisiana state prisons. This action is the result of statutory changes made in June, when Governor John Bel Edwards (D) signed 10 bills into law, made effective on August 1, to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system.
Louisiana currently has the highest incarceration rate of any state. In 2014, the state imprisoned 816 people per 100,000. But as a result of the new laws, 16,000 of the 35,500 total inmates may now obtain early release.
The legislation is projected to reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent over the next decade. By no longer housing those inmates, Louisiana is expected to save $262 million. 70 percent of the savings will be going to offender rehabilitation and victim support programs.
These changes come at a time of increased nationwide interest in criminal justice reform, manifested in state clemency efforts and changes to mandatory minimums. These changes contrast with federal efforts led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is imposing stricter penalties on offenders. At a time when Louisiana leads the country with the largest concentration of prisoners, could changing the scope of their criminal justice system compel other states to follow suit? And will the changes be sufficient to lead a paradigm shift in the overall system?
The goal of Louisiana’s initiative is to keep non-serious offenders out of prison and push for alternatives to drop the recidivism rate. Ultimately, the statutory changes are a small step considering that, on average, the inmates were going to be released within 60 days of their original release date. Even if changes were not made, the inmates would have been released almost as quickly. But this is a necessary step. These prisoners will be getting training so that they can hopefully thrive once they are outside bars and, hopefully, so they do not return to prison. All individuals identified to be released will complete the 50 to 100 hour reentry program before going home. James LeBlanc, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, has said that this program teaches the inmates how to secure housing and jobs. If not for the statutory changes, the inmates would not have gone through this program. LeBlanc is hopeful that the program will lead to a drop in the recidivism rate.
There is uncertainty about whether the prisoners will be released from state or local prisons. Louisiana’s criminal justice system is not the norm; over half of the 35,500 inmates are housed in local jails. Given that Louisiana is the only state in the nation with this type of structure, the results of the statutory changes will be difficult to measure and apply to other states.
Sheriffs in Louisiana’s local prisons make money relative to the number of inmates within the prison. Since sheriffs also don’t know where the prisoners will be released from, there has been backlash because they rely on the income. They are so dependent on the income they receive, that some sheriffs even expanded the size of their prisons, particularly in northern Louisiana, to accept state inmates.
They also rely on “good,” non-violent prisoners to perform personal tasks for the officers and chores around the prison. The prisoners are described as a “necessary evil” because they perform the equivalent of indentured labor for sheriffs to keep the prison doors open. The “good ones” wash cars, change oil, and cook for the sheriffs so that the prison can save money. These are also the prisoners who are most likely to get released. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the sheriffs to keep inmates detained in local prisons. The officers are part of the problem, keeping inmates who deserve to be released early just because they have built a reliance on the free labor.
Sheriffs argue that anyone will be released, including the “bad” inmates. However, this is exactly what the new statutes are trying to avoid. The 16,000 records being reviewed are going through in-depth reviews, not only looking at the records related to imprisonment, but also reviewing prior arrest records and non-convictions.
Sheriffs who may believe the changes are a good idea because they want the inmates to be productive citizens in society are concerned that the inmates will re-offend. As one sheriff said, “[h]e’s a burglar and a thief and a dope dealer . . . . What do you think he’s going to do when he gets out of jail?”
Although Louisiana is making big leaps towards reform, the criminal justice system still has a long way to go. For instance, Louisiana will still be one of two states that keep felons convicted of second-degree murder in prison for life. This means that even geriatric prisoners who no longer pose a risk to society will have to live the rest of their lives in detention. And many of the 16,000 sentences being considered will likely remain unchanged. Although about one quarter of the 16,000 inmates may be eligible for release by the end of the year, each record has to be reviewed by hand and inmates who have not completed the rehabilitation work are not eligible.
While there will be an initial jump in releases over the first month, with a projected 1,500 inmates being released in addition to the usual 1,500 released each month, this number will dissipate to between 30 and 50 additional prisoners in December. The drop in numbers demonstrates that the statutory changes are not meant to be significant in the long run.
The pushback from sheriffs, the need to keep the jails open and other factors may also be behind the unchanging sentences. There has been no change to the unjust practice and financial incentive of paying sheriffs more to keep inmates for indentured labor. Eventually, the statute needs to change local prisons so that sheriffs do not push back on the overhaul and support the inmates instead. Because of the circular issues related to local prisons, and sheriffs’ desires to keep people in jail for their own personal gain, sheriffs do not fully accept the societal benefit of holding less people in prison. Ultimately, the statute will not have the intended impact.
There are many things we do not know yet. We do not know if the released detainees will find housing or secure jobs. We do not know if any will go back to criminal activity. We do not know if they will be able to contribute positively to society.
However, I have fairly high hopes that these statutory changes could have a positive impact on the criminal justice system. Louisiana has a propensity to imprison people convicted of nonviolent offenses, related mostly to drugs and robbery. With these changes, there may be more rehabilitation and shorter sentences (or decreased imprisonment) for people convicted of similar crimes and who have only one such offense. Currently, only about one in ten inmates participate in rehabilitation programs offered by the state. Of all inmates released, one in three are re-incarcerated within three years. With the new re-entry program focused on providing training for jobs and housing, and with the increased availability to inmates, it is conceivable that the recidivism rate will shrink.
These statutes are a necessary first step to change the criminal justice system instituted in Louisiana. Because Louisiana is already at the bottom of the barrel, any effort to improve policy with regard to incarceration practices will produce a measurable positive effect. We are worse off as a society when certain members cannot be supported in their freedom. When it is preferred to keep people incarcerated rather than help them, we are failing. Hopefully with these baby steps, Louisiana will keep building to end other discriminatory practices within the prisons.
Whether you believe in financial incentives or second chances, these measures are a positive change. Will they be enough? Probably not, but they are heading in the right direction.