The Louisiana State Capitol. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

Louisiana has saved over $150 million thanks to a package of criminal justice reform measures passed by the legislature in 2017, according to a recent report produced by the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.  

The savings are tied to a significant drop in the state’s prison population — which was down by almost 10,000 people in 2021 compared 2016.

Both the savings and the reduction in prison population show that the reforms are having their intended impacts, DOC Secretary James LeBlanc said at a Justice Reinvestment Implementation Oversight Council hearing last week, when the report was presented. 

“The numbers are reflecting that we’re doing the right thing and heading in the right direction,”  LeBlanc said. 

Some of the recent prison population drop, however, had more to do with the near total shutdown of the criminal justice system due to COVID-19 in 2020 than the reform measures — called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI — officials said at the meeting. But the savings in the report were adjusted to reflect that, according to DOC Undersecretary for Corrections Services, Thomas Bickham. 

“It was correct that JRI not take the credit for the savings because of what COVID did to our [prison] population” Bickham said. 

(The report does not specify how much those adjustments amounted to or how they were calculated. A spokesperson for the DOC did not respond to questions regarding the adjustments.)

But the report notes that in 2021, when most of the criminal legal system throughout the state was up and running, new prison admissions were still down compared to prior, non-COVID years, along with average sentence lengths for felony admissions.

The savings are calculated by looking at the population drop in the prison population each month and multiplying that by a per diem rate, Bickham said. Those yearly savings are then used as the baseline savings for the following year. The savings are then divided among the state general fund, the Office of Juvenile Justice, the DOC, victims services administered by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, and a grant program that funds organizations who provide services “in effort to reduce prison admissions, reduce returns to prison, and improve community coordination of reentry services.”

The 2017 legislative package contained sentencing reforms — such as changing drug sentencing to correspond to the amount of illegal substance in one’s possession, and lowering mandatory minimum sentences for defendants sentenced under the state’s habitual offender law — along with measures expanding parole eligibility. 

It had the broad goals of focusing prison use for those convicted of serious violent crimes, improving community oversight for people on probation and parole, making it easier for people getting out of prison to enter back into society, and reinvesting any savings into reducing recidivism and supporting people affected by crime, according to the report.

LeBlanc said that the state’s high rate of incarceration was not having the desired impact on public safety. 

“We were locking up twice as many people [as the rest of the country]” LeBlanc said. “And all you had to do was look at the crime stats. And where we were ranked in crime stats, and we were in the top ten in every crime category there was. And so, obviously locking up and throwing away the key was not what we were trying to accomplish in this state with reform.”

Enhanced sentences down 80 percent

In addition to a steep decline in incarceration rate, the report shows that a greater proportion of the prison population are now incarcerated for violent crimes. 

In fact, the decline in prison population is entirely driven by a decrease in the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses. There were actually slightly more people in prison for violent crimes in 2021 than there were in 2016, according to the report. But people in prison for nonviolent crimes, however, declined by more than 10,000.

The use of the state’s habitual offender statute, which allows prosecutors to ask for enhanced sentences after someone has been convicted when a defendant had previous convictions, has also declined dramatically. In 2016, prosecutors utilized the statute 466 times, according to the report. In 2021, it was used just 89 times. That’s nearly an 81 percent decrease. 

In addition to the lowering of mandatory minimum sentences, the legislation also shortened the time limit for when some past convictions be used to implement the habitual offender legislation.

In 2018, former Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro, who at one time utilized the habitual offender statute more than any other prosecutor in the state, cited the legislation as a reason for his office seeking sentencing enhancements less frequently.

The differences are even starker when you look back to 2012, when the prison population in the state was at its peak at around 41,000. Since then, the incarceration rate has been reduced by 33.6 percent, according to the report. 

“You start looking at that — that’s about a 14- to 15,000 person reduction,”  LeBlanc said at the meeting last week. “That’s roughly three Louisiana State Penitentiaries.”

Louisiana has also once again relinquished its position as the most incarcerated state in the country, according to LeBlanc, which it held when the reforms were first implemented. In 2018 Oklahoma briefly overtook Louisiana, but that was short lived

“We’re actually second now, to Mississippi,”  LeBlanc said. “Which is not anything to brag about, but at least we’re second.”

Savings plateauing

Officials said that while both the savings increased and prison population decreased more quickly than initial projections, those impacts seemed to be plateauing this year. 

“I think we are at the bottom of that initial savings slope right now,” Bickham said. 

He said that he hoped the investments the state was making on reentry services and other programing would mean a further reduction in the future, once those programs “take hold” — which he said had been delayed by COVID. 

Thirty percent of the overall savings are allocated into the state general fund. Twenty percent go to the Office of Juvenile Justice. The remaining fifty percent is divided among the DOC, LCLE, and a community incentive grant program. 

According to the report, OJJ has used their approximately $5 million allocation this year to invest in programs aimed to keep kids from being locked up during their interaction with the juvenile justice system, providing support for diversion and alternative to detention programs that are administered by local judicial districts.

The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement has used their money to pay victims through the crime victims reparations fund and provide housing assistance to domestic violence survivors. They have also spent over a million dollars on equipment and staffing for the state’s crime lab. 

The Department of Corrections has used their cut this year to run “Regional Reentry Centers” in collaboration with nine local jails around the state. They have also used the funding for vocational and educational programming in prisons. 

Not all of the spending with the reinvestment funds has historically been met with approval by lawmakers. 

In August of last year, the department came under fire when they revealed that they used reinvestment funds to build a new facility at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center, according to a story in The Louisiana Illuminator. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...