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Price of Justice: Sheriffs and Parish Prisons

Courtesy: The Rouge Collection

How did Louisiana end up with the world’s highest incarceration rate? Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre says it grew out of the late 1980’s national political emphasis on “law and order.”

“The prison population grew exponentially and it became, quite candidly, a cottage industry/prison industrial complex of housing people that were sentenced to jail,” Webre explains.  “And the Louisiana legislature passed laws that the judges enforced.”

Speaking to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force last week, Webre also observed, “Now we are moving away from that model, and there’s going to be some difficulty in that.”

Many parish sheriffs built bigger, shinier new prisons, in hopes of housing federal and/or state prisoners. The federal Bureau of Prisons pays $47 per day per prisoner: the state pays $25 per day for each prisoner housed locally. But in 2013, the feds started cutting back on housing prisoners in local jails, and contracts to do so are becoming increasingly scarce. And now, reducing the quantity of state prisoners is going to further affect the sheriffs’ bottom line.

“Seems like every time we talk about it, one of the considerations is the reliance of local sheriffs on housing state prisoners” as state Senator Danny Martiny observes.

State Representative Terry Landry, a former commander of Louisiana State Police, notes many sheriffs have already cut services for inmates to the bone.

“There are some jails that aren’t providing anything, but a meal and a place to stay,” Landry says.

Yet some sheriffs who are running their jails at a deficit – as in Tensas and Evangeline Parishes – have recently told the Legislative Auditor they plan to fix that by getting more state prisoners.

Landry suggests that may not be the best course.

“Do we reward people that are providing services, and maybe remove those sheriffs that are not doing anything but providing the basics?” Landry asks.

Sheriff Webre acknowledges that may be the end result.

“I accept as a premise that we are going to have – and need to have – less prisoners overall across the state,” Webre says, “And there are going to be empty jails.”