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Louisiana, nation's top jailer, now trying early releases

Louisiana, nation's top jailer, now trying early releases

Released inmates concern local officials

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Hundreds of inmates were able to get early releases from Louisiana prisons and jails last week, a milestone in a push to reduce the nation's highest incarceration rate.

The early release of roughly 1,500 inmates on Nov. 1 was the product of a new package of laws overhauling the state's criminal justice system.

Criminal justice reform advocates have applauded the state’s release of about 2,000 prisoners this month, but some local law enforcement officials aren’t happy and are skeptical about whether the criminal justice reform measures will put a dent in the state’s crime rate.

The inmate releases were among the changes in 10 laws that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed in June. Another law requires about $184 million of the estimated $262 million in savings over the next decade be reinvested in services for crime victims and programs designed to keep people from returning to prison. Louisiana spends approximately $700 million annually on correctional costs.

The measures are projected to reduce the state's prison population by up to 10 percent over 10 years. Louisiana, which now has the nation's highest incarceration rate, could lose that status by the end of 2018, according to the governor's office.

State Rep. Tanner Magee, a Republican who sponsored one of the bills, said the changes were patterned after laws enacted in other Southern states, including Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina and Texas

"We didn't come up with this whole cloth," Magee said. "It's a proven model."

However, local officials say they are not entirely convinced. Of the roughly 2,000 inmates released last week, 63 were convicted for crimes in Terrebonne Parish, 27 in Lafourche, local officials said.

In Terrebonne, at least 50 had prior felony convictions and several have violent criminal histories, parish First Assistant District Attorney Jason Dagate said. The list also includes inmates convicted for their fourth, fifth or even sixth DWIs.

“They’re going to be paroled to my knowledge without receiving real treatment prior to their release,” Dagate said. “So considering that, this is concerning because the law does not take into account the entire picture and totality of circumstances surrounding these cases or individuals. The judge or prosecutor would have assessed a number of factors prior to a sentence being imposed on these cases, but this law now retroactively allows for the early release for some of these repeat offenders with little or no treatment.”

Kristine Russell, interim district attorney in Lafourche, said she supports criminal justice reform, but simply releasing inmates is not the answer to reduce the incarceration rate.

“The premise is to take nonviolent offenders and release them from jail because we have such a high incarceration rate,” Russell said. “Some of the nonviolent offenders who have drug problems are not getting the tools they need to survive once they’re let out. So I expect we’re going to have a high recidivism rate. I think we need to go deeper into the problem and address what the underlying issue is before we just release them.”

For instance, she said, the state should invest in programs that treat mental health and addiction.

However, state officials said most of the inmates who walked out of prison and jail Nov. 1 were scheduled to be released in about 60 days anyway.

Under the new law, nonviolent offenders are eligible for "good time" release after serving 35 percent of their sentence — down from 40 percent before the change, which is retroactive.

State corrections secretary James LeBlanc said he's confident "public safety is going to be enhanced" by the legislative changes, including the prisoner releases.

"We're all afraid one of these guys is going to do something wrong, but, from my perspective, I can't overreact to those kinds of things. I have to stay the course here, because I know it's going to work," he said.

About 82 percent are being released from parish jails; the rest are coming from state prisons. LeBlanc said his department is reviewing each inmate's file prior to release and has circulated the list to sheriffs and district attorneys.

"If they have concerns, they have my cellphone number," LeBlanc said.

Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health and Justice, is a proponent of the governor’s efforts to change the state’s criminal justice system. The inmates who were released this month have been carefully vetted and screened, Scharf said.

“Our incarceration rate was three or four times higher than the rest of the country,” Scharf said. “What the governor has done is good policy because it saves money. The cost of incarcerating people sucks blood out of every other social program. In addition, it will reunite people with their families. It puts them back into jobs to earn salaries and pay taxes. So the fiscal impact should be very strong.”

The efforts’ success will hinge heavily on re-entry programs that help former inmates develop work training and other skills to allow them to get back on their feet, Scharf said. Money saved from the criminal justice reform efforts can be used to bolster such programs.

“I really think history will look kindly at this,” Scharf said.