In 2017, Louisiana’s criminal justice system took a turn for the better. Realizing that Louisiana’s largest per capita prison system had one-third of the prison population released only to return in three years, lawmakers, law enforcement and other stakeholders came together to pass a package of reforms based on what works in states such as Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) allows more dollars to funnel back into programs that will help prevent future crimes and will safely reduce the prison population.
Even though Louisiana’s criminal justice reforms have shown positive progress in their infancy, skeptics continue to ignore any gains that are taking place.
In the midst of evaluating the effectiveness of the newly implemented reforms, it is helpful to be reminded of three main recommendations that came out of the 1½-year study.
First, prison bed space should be primarily reserved for those we are scared of, not just mad at.
Second, we need to improve and strengthen supervision of released offenders.
Third, savings realized from the reforms must be reinvested into proven recidivism-reducing programs that assist released offenders as they return to our communities.
As a member of the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council, I have received a number of positive updates that indicate advancements made on these three goals.
Prior to 2017, Louisiana was incarcerating far too many non-violent offenders instead of utilizing alternatives to incarceration. This translated into a bloated prison population and extremely high caseloads for probation and parole officers, causing too little focus on the truly violent offenders.
Today, a snapshot of the Louisiana prison system shows that the majority of individuals incarcerated are there for violent offenses and that the number of individuals imprisoned for non-violent offenses has dropped 20 percent since the fourth quarter of 2017. There has also been a 7.4 percent decrease in prison admissions.
This is largely due to fewer probation and parole revocations. Probation officers are seeing their caseloads move from 150 probationers for each officer to a much more manageable 130. This is a great indication that the JRI reforms are doing what was primarily intended — focusing prison resources on individuals who pose a serious threat to public safety.
According to Pete Fremin, director of the Office of Probation and Parole, the new training has improved officers’ skills, morale and the services provided to released offenders.
It is extremely heartening to know that individuals who are returning to our communities are now getting the assistance that will improve their likelihood to live law-abiding, productive lives and that our probation and parole officers are better equipped and prepared to do their jobs safely and effectively.
These results are just the start. With the Louisiana Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee approving $8.5 million in actual savings realized from implementing the reforms, funding will now be available to five parishes in the state: Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany. The funds allocated will be provided to sheriffs, local non-profits, and courts to begin or enhance community-based reentry programs within the state prison and local jail systems.
States that have implemented similar reforms have reported significant decreases in recidivism. For example, Georgia experienced a 35 percent decrease in recidivism from 2007 to 2016. Michigan’s recidivism rate dropped 43 percent from 2006 to 2015.
I was chosen to serve on the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council because I have over 20 years of experience working with incarcerated populations and their families as well as developing and implementing successful reentry programs. It does not take a criminal justice expert, however, to realize that Louisiana did not begin its decades-long reign as the number one incarcerator in the world overnight. Likewise, to correct the ineffective “lock 'em up and throw away the key” policies of the past will also take time to fully implement. Louisiana has begun that journey, which given the opportunity to come to its destination, increase public safety, spend taxpayers dollars more effectively, and give thousands of individuals and their families affected by the criminal justice system greater opportunity to flourish.
Now that’s a road all Louisianans should want to travel.
This commentary was originally featured in the Shreveport Times on September 7, 2018.