My former supervisor from Probation and Parole always said, “you attract more bees with honey,” when describing how we were to interact with persons on supervision. We have all seen how this approach works in our daily lives as we interact with a wide range of people. Mutual respect and a little compassion goes a long way. In my ten years as a probation and parole officer I accomplished more with those on supervision by adhering to this saying than by using my authority and badge as motivators. These options were always on the table but were used sparingly, appropriately, and proportionally.
However, not everyone felt this was a good approach. Those who disagreed noted we are dealing with criminals and they should be treated as such. Probation and parole should be tough and it should be something no one ever wants to be on again. As Louisiana State Director for Right on Crime I am often confronted with a similar thought process about the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiatives (JRI). Those who disagree say, “All you did was let people out of prison. That isn’t reform.” Well, they are half right; that isn’t reform. However, that was not the purpose of Justice Reinvestment, nor what actually happened.
On November 1, 2017, as part of the 2017 JRI, approximately 1,952 persons were released from the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) to parole supervision after going through reentry programming they would not have received without the bill. The 2017 JRI reforms were comprised of 10 bills that received bipartisan support from both the house and senate. These reforms were based on best practices and evidence-based research from states where similar reform measures were passed. States like Texas, Georgia, Utah, and North Carolina, notoriously known as being tough on crime, passed smart and effective reforms to their criminal justice system. Louisiana’s JRI reforms as well as the federal First Step Act were modeled after the success these states had with similar policy changes.
Louisiana did not simply create a program to release inmates from prison. The reforms were part of a unified effort from all parties to address the 43% recidivism rate that occurs after five years. This revolving door needs to stop. Approximately 95% of persons sentenced to prison will return to society. DOC has an annual budget of over $700 million. There is no evidence that the last three decades of incarcerating people and expecting them to reintegrate back into society after release has worked. However, there is evidence that supports JRI reforms. In the 2019 JRI annual report that was released on July 19, we see where prison admissions have decreased by 2.3% and admissions for revocations have decreased by 5.3% since 2016. Additionally, probation and parole caseloads dropped from 149 in 2016 to 123 by the end of 2018. According to the Department of Corrections 17.8 million dollars were saved and will be reinvested into the general fund, Office of Juvenile Justice, crime victim’s services and community programs.
The overall goals of the reforms were to focus prison beds on those persons who pose a serious threat to public safety, strengthen community supervision, remove barriers to reentry and lastly to re-invest savings in evidence based programming, prison alternatives, and victim support services.
We are not advocating that persons should not be held responsible for their actions. In fact, quite the contrary. Current systems that hold individuals for too long and create unnecessary barriers to successful reentry hinder individuals from making amends for their transgressions. On the other hand, evidence-based reforms like those passed in Louisiana in 2017, put public safety, personal responsibility, and victims’ rights at the forefront. Public safety can be maintained and increased through the strengthening of community-supervision-probation and parole and other alternatives to incarceration such as drug and specialty courts. An excellent example is the 24th JDC-Re-Entry Court started by Judges Arther Hunter and Laurie White from Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and continued by Judge Scott Schlegel. These programs recognize the root causes and work on education and redemption. We all need hope. With the JRI reforms and a belief in the possibility of redemption, hope is instilled in those incarcerated through education, technical training, and soft skills training (how to manage money, how to prepare for an interview, etc.) while incarcerated along with a support system post incarceration. This post incarceration support comes from community supervision and a reinvestment in community and faith-based organizations. Helping people obtain the skills necessary to be successful once released and helping them navigate barriers to successful reentry (housing, employment, and transportation) encourages personal responsibility, provides more opportunities to obtain employment, keeps families together, and is a critical factor in reducing recidivism rates.
Louisiana is my home. I want a safe place to raise my family. I also believe, as do many people in Louisiana, that we can have a cost-effective criminal justice system that ensures public safety while restoring victims, reforming offenders, and recognizing the values of hope and redemption.