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Opening the Jailhouse Doors

Sabine Heinlein

Many aspects of Louisiana’s criminal justice overhaul go into effect today.

“The prison population grew exponentially, and it became — quite candidly — a cottage industry/prison industrial complex of housing people that were sentenced to jail,” explains LaFourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, who backed the changes. “Now we are moving away from that model, and there’s going to be some difficulty in that.”

One of the biggest difficulties is continued opposition from other sheriffs — like Steve Prator of Caddo Parish.

“I don’t think the people of Louisiana know exactly what justice reinvestment is doing. We just open the gates and flood the streets with some of these people that don’t need to be out,” Prator said during a press conference last month. “In Caddo Parish alone, in the first wave throughout November, we’re going to have 192 felons that are going to be released early.”

Prator added, “Justice Reinvestment was passed for money, to save $262 million over the next 10 years.”

And therein lies the crux of Sheriff Prator’s objection — something state Sen. Danny Martiny of Kenner warned about when the criminal justice reinvestment bills were being debated this past spring.

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

Louisiana pays parish prisons $24.39 per-day for the feeding and housing of each state prisoner. The Department of Corrections has said prisoners participating in the reform program will be released, on average, 60 days early. Using Sheriff Prator’s own figures, this initial early release will be a $280,973 hit to his parish prison budget. As more prisoners are released in future months, the revenue loss will mount.

Not every parish prison is providing programs for the state prisoners they house, in order to prepare them for life on the outside. More than a few parish prisons offer no educational courses, counseling, or work training. As New Iberia Representative Terry Landry, a former commander of Louisiana State Police, remarked, “There are some jails that aren’t providing anything but a meal and a place to stay. I think it turned into a business decision because there’s a profit margin in it for some facilities.”

Sheriff Webre concurred.

“Prisons are profit oriented,” he said. “They are owned by organizations that hope to make money.”