The Promising Fruits of Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative
On November 1, 2017, as a part of the criminal justice reforms passed by the legislature that year, nearly 2,000 individuals were to be released from Louisiana correctional facilities. On average, they were being released a couple months earlier than their expected release date.
As a Louisiana Probation and Parole officer (PNP) at the time, I was nervous. Critics predicted the worst. However, the doomsday prophecies were greatly exaggerated. I was able to see firsthand the hard work and dedication of probation and parole officers to ensure public safety. Today, as a member of the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council, I have another unique perspective of the reforms and their implementation. On Friday, January 25, 2019, the Oversight Council met for the first time this year and discussed some very promising initial results.
Prior to reforms, Louisiana was the number one incarcerator by rate in the country. Since then, we have dropped to number two. However, this would mean nothing if public safety were put at risk. Yet, we are seeing a safer Louisiana. Prior to release, almost every individual received reentry programming designed to reduce recidivism that they likely would not have received prior to these reforms. As of December 2018, only 12% of the November 1 releasees have returned to prison and 95 are currently detained awaiting hearings. According to Department of Corrections (DOC), these numbers are well below the average recidivism rates of 20% for persons on PNP supervision. This is not to say the criminal activity of those released is acceptable but the notion that an early release of a few months would cause significant increases in crime appears to be wholly without merit.
In October 2017, there were 72,342 persons on community supervision through PNP— an average case load of 140 persons per officer. As of December 2018, these numbers dropped 13.6% to 62,519 persons on supervision, or 125 per officer. One of the goals of the JRI was to strengthen community supervision. As PNP officer caseloads decrease, they can focus more time and effort on cases that require higher attention. An officer moves from “putting out fires” to being able to help, assist, and direct those on supervision to appropriate community programs and treatment. Other states, like Texas, have shown that smaller caseloads results in less crime and supervision revocations.
Earned Compliance Credits (ECC) have given PNP officers an alternative to jail sanctions and technical revocations. ECC is a tool to motivate non-violent, lower-level probationers and parolees to follow their supervision requirements. Under ECC, individuals who comply with their conditions can reduce their supervision term up to half. Since the JRI, PNP officers have added over 10,000 months of supervision time to those they supervise. Prior to reforms, these violations would likely have been addressed by jail sanctions or technical revocations. Community supervision is becoming more effective and officers now have more time to address the issues that cause people to return to prison. This results in a savings to taxpayers while continuing to ensure the safety of the citizens of Louisiana.
The reforms were not simply intended to let people out of jail but to better utilize resources and focus prison beds on those who pose a serious threat to public safety. There has now been a 20 percent decrease in the prison population for non-violent offenders. More focus is now put on higher-risk, violent offenders behind bars while non-violent offenders can be safely monitored in the community with better recidivism reducing programming. Not only was Louisiana able to shed its title of number one in the nation for incarceration rate, it has been already able to shift $12 million in corrections spending to put most of that towards programming geared to reduce recidivism and victims.
Thirty percent of the savings is returned to the state’s general fund; 21 percent is being invested in community incentive grants; 14 percent goes to victim’s services, and 35 percent to Department of Corrections (DOC) for reinvestment. The initial community incentive grants focused on the five parishes that comprised 40 percent of prison intakes: East Baton Rouge, Caddo, St. Tammany, Jefferson and Orleans. They received over $2.5 million to address substance abuse, mental health issues, housing, employment and other needs facing those returning from prison. A Family Justice Center will be funded in East Baton Rouge to help victims of family violence, and the Crime Victims’ Reparations Fund will receive $300,000 to help pay pending claims that have been backlogged for years. DOC will invest $900,000 in two-day reporting centers and $600,000 for specialty courts—drug and reentry courts. Additionally, $370,000 will fund a pilot transition housing program for returning citizens.
This is just the beginning. There is still work to be done to continue the positive results of the JRI legislation. We must be committed to the continued implementation of the reforms and the important work of the Oversight Council. We did not enter this situation overnight and we will not fix it overnight. We are headed in the right direction. The state of Louisiana has a history of charity that is second to none. The citizens of this great state deserve a criminal justice system that protects the public, restores victims, saves taxpayers money and reforms offenders. Together we are working to make this a reality.