Massive criminal justice reforms passed by the Legislature two years ago have shed the state’s title as the incarceration capital of the nation. Sentencing changes, including increased access to probation and parole, are also saving the state millions of dollars.
Department of Corrections Undersecretary Thomas Bickham told members of the House Appropriations committee Monday the reforms generated more than $12 million in savings in the first year, and are estimated to reach $17 million this year. Corrections officials expect the savings to keep growing.
70% of the savings have to be put back into the criminal justice system to help provide educational and rehabilitative services for prisoners, so that once they get out of prison they don’t come back.
Right now, those reinvestment dollars are targeted at the five parishes which make up about half of the state’s prison population.
”If we’re going to make this money work, we can’t spread it out throughout the state. We have to concentrate it in those areas," said Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.
That means the majority of the money is being spent on prisoners from East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Jefferson, Caddo and St. Tammany parishes.
But there’s some concern about where those dollars aren’t going. Representative Dustin Miller (D-Opelousas) supported the 2017 reforms, but he worries prisoners from his parish won’t benefit from the reinvestment dollars.
"How can I tell a prisoner in my parish that, ‘sorry, if you were in St. Tammany Parish you would have access to this, but you’re here, so you don’t.'”
LeBlanc says the focus has to be narrow.
"I can’t get to everybody with the funding that I have."
According to LeBlanc, the next phase of the program could begin soon and reach prisoners from eight more parishes, including Lafayette and Calcasieu.
That expansion would involve nearly 80% of the state’s prisoners, but not those in rural parishes like Representative Miller’s.