By Grace Toohey

Louisiana officials reported significant decreases in prison populations and prison admissions following the first year of the state's historic criminal justice reforms, said Gov. John Bel Edwards Thursday.

Edwards said the state has seen a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes and a 47 percent decrease in those sent to prison for drug possession.

Previously the incarceration capital of the nation, Louisiana dropped from the No. 1 spot this month, now behind Oklahoma, for the highest rate of prisoners per capita. Edwards credited the 10-bill bipartisan package aimed at reducing the prison population and addressing criminal justice issues with that success.

"Shedding that title is just the beginning," Edwards said Thursday at a press conference, releasing a report on the justice reinvestment package. "This is about making the people of Louisiana safer."

Edwards also said that the savings created from the reforms have "exceeded all expectations," however he declined to provide how much had been saved, waiting for the fiscal year to officially close at the end of the month, just days away.

Seventy percent of the savings are dedicated to public safety measures, primarily focused on reducing recidivism and supporting offenders before leaving prison and throughout their reentry to society.

As mandated by legislation, the savings will be divided three ways: 30 percent awarded in grants for community reentry services and prison alternatives; 20 percent to support victims' services; and 50 percent will remain within the Department of Corrections to offer programming to inmates.

In the second year, the Office of Juvenile Justice will start to receive 20 percent of the savings reinvestment. The 2017 reforms were expected to generate $262 million in savings over 10 years.

The reported savings have stemmed primarily from the decrease in costs to house prisoners as the reforms created shorter sentences for many nonviolent offenders; gave parole eligibility to certain inmates sooner; and reduced mandatory minimums.

They also created a medical furlough program, allowing the sickest inmates to temporarily receive treatment off site through Medicaid, as opposed to on the state's dime.

Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc shared that as of Thursday, the state prisoner population has dipped below 33,000 -- the lowest number in 20 years, he said.

"We are beginning to see the fruits of our labor," LeBlanc said.

(c)2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.