Challenges of Justice Reform
This article by Elain Ellerbe originally appeared in The Advocate, September 4th, 2017.
For many years, Louisiana has relied on local jails and detention centers to house large numbers of state prisoners. State prisoners are almost exclusively all felons who are intended to serve their time in state correction facilities. According to the Louisiana Department of Corrections, there are presently more than 36,000 offenders serving time for state felonies. After several years of steep state budget cuts, DOC has been left with only seven state facilities that have a total capacity of just under 19,000 beds. Doing the quick math, that leaves 17,000 more beds needed to house state offenders.
To make up for the gap, the state has relied heavily on local sheriff-run jail facilities to house state offenders in Louisiana. Unfortunately, local jails are not reimbursed at the same rate as state facilities operate, which can cause a litany of issues in terms of public safety and successful reintegration for returning citizens.
The biggest downside to relying so heavily on local jails is that they lack the funding for reentry programs that state facilities can afford. Reentry programs include substance abuse treatment, job readiness, and GED programs, all of which contribute to more effective rehabilitation and reduced recidivism. The lack of funding comes back to reimbursement rates. Local jails cannot possibly provide the same level of programming on just $24.39 per day per offender. That amount of money barely covers the housing and food aspect of incarceration — not to mention medical care which can be close to non-existent in the local jail setting. Conversely, state facilities run on approximately $51.62 per day per offender.
There are no anticipated plans to expand prison capacity at that higher rate of reimbursement of $51.62 a day. However, there is a possible light at the end of the tunnel. With the recent passage of major criminal justice reform in the Pelican State that is anticipated to avert hundreds of millions of dollars in corrections costs over the next ten years, 70% of those savings will be allocated across a spectrum of reentry programs.
One measure will allow local jails and their community partners who currently provide or wish to establish reentry programming to apply for a grant from DOC to enhance and expand their programs. The DOC Implementation Committee, which is in its formative stage, will determine what this process will look like. However, it’s been noted that a high level of accountability should be required of the local facilities and/or community partners receiving said funding. It is imperative that the grantees provide measurable goals for their reentry programs — and be held responsible for the results.
Eighteen thousand people are released each year in Louisiana, with 14,000 of them coming out of local jails. Utilizing a portion of the Justice Reinvestment dollars as a funding stream to establish reentry programs in local jails is crucial because it is proven to help reduce recidivism. Rehabilitating offenders and protecting the public is well worth the time and effort it takes to ensure Justice Reinvestment dollars are spent effectively. Having, “been there and done that” as the leader of a highly impactful non-profit dedicated to implementing jail reentry programming, I personally know it is possible to transform a jail from ‘lock and feed’ to a center of rehabilitation and restoration that makes communities safer and keeps families together.