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Louisiana takes major step to reduce its prison population

Hundreds of prisoners could be released early, but staying out of prison will be an uphill battle.

Re-entry program participants work in the auto repair training shop inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Re-entry program participants work in the auto repair training shop inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Louisiana finally has a shot at losing its title of incarceration capital of the world after the legislature approved a wide-ranging criminal justice reform package Monday.

Though the legislation was significantly watered down in the process, it is expected to reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent over ten years and save $262 million. The bills took on the state’s disproportionately harsh sentences, shortening prison and probation time for some nonviolent and drug offenses. Hundreds of people could become eligible for early release through parole.

But once they’re out of prison, it’s not going to be easy to stay out.

Sentencing reform has become more popular with Republicans and Democrats in statehouses across the country. But as lawmakers focus on reducing their states’ prison populations, there’s often less attention on what support these former inmates will need upon leaving prison.

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With 1,200 more people entering community supervision over the next two years, Louisiana may become an experimental ground for parole and probation reform. The state will need to drastically revamp its budget to shift resources from prison to what comes afterward.

The current failings of probation and parole services are helping drive the state’s incarceration rate. More than half of all people entering prison have violated some condition of their community supervision, according to the Department of Corrections. Parole officers say they are overloaded, each handling an average of 160 cases at a time.

Staying out of prison is close to an Olympian feat. Many jobs, housing options, voting rights, and education opportunities are automatically closed off to people trying to readjust to the outside world. About half of people under community supervision are unemployed. Meanwhile, they must pay monthly supervision fees and any outstanding court debts that may have piled up while they were in prison.

The number of people on probation and parole in Louisiana is roughly double the number of people in prison, according to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which conducted an exhaustive study that formed the basis for the criminal justice reform legislation. The task force found that prisoners were encouraged to participate in rehabilitative and occupational programs in exchange for time off their sentences. But once people are back in the outside world on probation or parole, those incentives vanished.

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The criminal justice reform package, which is a set of 10 bills, begins to address some unnecessary hurdles. One bill passed Monday will allow people on felony probation to earn credit to shorten their terms for each month they successfully meet the conditions of their probation. Since probationers and parolees are most likely to slip up in the first few months out of prison, trimming supervision time off the back end of their sentences has no impact on public safety.

Other reforms will help ease the financial burdens that can overwhelm ex-offenders as soon as they’re released from prison. Bills nearing final passage would allow drug felons to use welfare and food stamps, limit fines and court fees for ex-offenders who can’t afford to pay, and suspend child support payments while the parent is in prison. Another bill will make it easier for ex-offenders to get occupational and business licenses, a major obstacle to holding down a job with a livable wage.

More states are turning their attention to probation and parole reform this year. Georgia, where one in sixteen people are on probation, recently passed a sweeping reform to shorten probation terms and create pathways for people to earn time off their supervision periods. Michigan also approved a legislative package in March that allows judges to shorten probation terms and reduces punishment for technical violations.

But that’s not necessarily the end of the story.

Nebraska, for example, expanded its probation services in 2015 to divert low-level offenders from prison. Now faced with a budget shortfall of $900 million, the state is cutting $4.6 million from probation services, forcing the state to consider scaling back drug treatment and housing assistance programs.

Louisiana is still trying to claw out of a massive budget deficit that has left the state unable to fund essential public services. S0 far, the legislature has failed to raise enough revenue through taxes to make up for a $1.3 billion “fiscal cliff,” according to the Louisiana Budget Project. That financial uncertainty could endanger reforms in the long term.

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The state’s criminal justice system currently relies on an unusual “user pay” model, which pays for court functions by levying fines and fees on the “users” of the criminal justice system. The result traps impoverished communities in a cycle of debt and jail, creates an inherent conflict of interest that rewards courts that convict more people — and forces the system to rely on an unsustainable, unpredictable source of funds.

The majority of the $262 million savings from the criminal justice reform legislation will be shared between victim support services and rehabilitation programs for ex-offenders through at least 2027. But it could take a heftier budget shift to make the reforms stick.

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who campaigned in part on the promise of reducing Louisiana’s incarcerated population, celebrated the passing of the criminal reform package on Monday evening and is expected to approve the bills.