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Hundreds of La. prisoners released due to criminal justice reform initiative

6th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

Nearly 2,000 convicted inmates in prisons throughout Louisiana were released early on Nov. 1, kicking off a comprehensive criminal justice reform initiative state lawmakers approved earlier this year.

Among those released were hundreds of people from Greater New Orleans area, all of whom had been convicted of nonviolent and non-sex offenses.

The new reforms aim to reduce prison populations in a state that have the highest incarceration rate in the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Under the reform, called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the offenders became eligible for “good time” release after serving 35 percent of their sentence. Before, the mandate was 40 percent.

On average, eligible prisoners will be released 60 to 90 days early.

Gov. John Bel Edwards was among those who praised the initiative. Ultimately, he touted, the 10-bill package is estimated to save approximately $262 million.

More than $180 million of the money is to be reinvested in programs that reduce the recidivism rate and “empower offenders to leave a life of crime,” Edwards said.

“Louisiana’s label as having the highest incarceration rate in the nation may be part of our past, but it will not be a part of our future,” Edwards said.

Edwards said the state’s criminal justice system underwent “thorough review” to make the state a “safer place for our children” and also “smarter on crime.”

“Today, we begin implementing the reforms that a powerful, bipartisan coalition of legislators passed this year,” Edwards added. “Along the way, we will, undoubtedly, find areas where we can improve these changes, but our goal remains the same – increase public safety, reduce over-incarceration for nonviolent offenses, and make smarter investments in alternatives to incarceration.”

Other states that have enacted reforms have experienced drops in crime and imprisonment rates, Edwards said. They include Southern states such as Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.

In Texas, for example, since their 2007 reforms, the imprisonment rate is down 16 percent, and crime is down 30 percent. South Carolina, since their 2010 reforms, has seen imprisonment go down by 16 percent, and crime down by 16 percent.

In North Carolina, the imprisonment rate is down three percent and crime is down 20 percent since 2011 reforms. And since their 2012 reforms, Georgia’s imprisonment rate is down seven percent and crime is down 11 percent.

The bill had the support of Democrats and Republicans, as well as some faith-based and business communities, law enforcement and prosecutors.

Rep. Walt Leger (D-New Orleans), a former prosecutor and author of the bill, said that many prisoners have been historically “underserved” with mental health and other issues that could have been “better addressed within the community” rather than in jail or prison, where there are few such services.

“I’ve been on the ground, I’ve seen it up close, and when I came to the Legislature I realized this was something we could do a better job on,” Leger said.

Sen. Danny Martiny (R-Kenner), praised the initiative’s spending plan.

“This is the first time that we’ve mandated that the funds that we save are invested back into the system, to make sure that we can improve on our ability to cut down on the recidivism rate, cut down on the number of nonviolent offenders that we have to incarcerate, and it provides the funds for alternatives to incarceration,” Martiny said.

However, the reforms have received backlash as well. Critics raised concerns that the probation and parole system would quickly get overwhelmed by the increased number of people being released.

Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, too, was outspoken against the state’s approach to reform. Earlier this year, he said that the state was rushing into the early-release program without properly taking into consideration implications for repeat offenders.

He pointed to one prisoner who had been arrested 52 times but would still qualify for early release from jail.

“I’m not saying we don’t need to reform what we do, but certainly we need to take our time and do like some of the other states and have some programs to work on rehabilitation before we just open the gates and flood the streets with some of these people that don’t need to be out,” Prator said then.

Prator came under fire for categorizing prisoners as either “bad ones” or “good ones,” saying those who were “good” were helpful because they were often sentenced to hard labor.

“They’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money,” Prator said in a speech many criticized for evoking racism and even slavery. “Well, they’re going to let them out, the ones that we use in the work-release program.”

New services for those released are expected to be implemented starting in July 2018.

This article originally published in the November 6, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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