By Grace Toohey
Louisiana continued to see better-than-predicted results from the second year of its comprehensive criminal justice reforms, recording $17.8 million in savings from a further drop in the state's prison population from July 1, 2018, to June 30 of this year.
The Department of Corrections reported on Friday that in that period, the state's prison population fell by 1,400, down to a total of 31,756 -- a number the state has not seen since the 1990s. The savings from lower incarceration costs will allow the state to further invest in initiatives aimed at keeping people from returning, or going, to prison, and supporting crime victims, officials said.
"We have exceeded last year's savings," Corrections Undersecretary Thomas Bickham said at a Justice Reinvestment Implementation Oversight Council meeting Friday. "This is good news."
After the bipartisan 10-bill package aimed at reducing the number of prisoners and addressing criminal justice issues went into effect in late 2017, the state reported $12 million in total savings by June 30, 2018, meaning $8.5 million was reinvested into new initiatives. Savings to be reinvested in the current fiscal year increased from last year's pot by almost 50 percent.
The funds to be used for such programming and other criminal justice improvements will be confirmed next month, but based on predictions from the current savings, about $12.5 million will be reinvested. Different from last year, 20 percent of those funds will go to the Office of Juvenile Justice, which has outlined its plan to use the $3.5 million for community-based pretrial alternatives to detention.
"It's exciting that the additional funding that will be allocated to juvenile justice because there's so much connection between that population (and those) that eventually end up in the adult population," said Natalie Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
The rest of the funds, $8.9 million, will be divided three ways: $2.67 million for community grants that support re-entry and prison diversion programs, $1.78 million for crime victim services, and $4.45 million to the Department of Corrections for further improvements. Laborde said they have not yet determined how they plan to use the additional funds this coming year.
Corrections officials also reported a drop of almost 6,000 people on supervision -- now at just below 60,000 -- which has helped reduce probation and parole officers' caseloads to around 120 each. Before the reforms, which created more opportunities for people to earn time off their periods of supervision, caseloads were closer to 150 per officer.
Gov. John Bel Edwards highlighted the new data, calling the reforms that he helped enact in 2017 a continued improvement for the state, which used to hold the title of the nation's incarceration capital.
"Everything we have put in place is based on data-driven policies that are successful in other southern states and are now having the same impacts in our state," Edwards said in a statement. "It is still early in this process and there are more lessons to learn and more challenges to meet, but we are taking significant steps toward improving our criminal justice system."
Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Action Fund, called the new numbers "meaningful progress" but said the work is not done.
"Louisiana's sentencing laws still remain some of the harshest in the country," Johnson wrote in a statement. "True efforts to reduce Louisiana's prison population need to include a system where redemption is realistic through expanding Louisiana's parole eligibility system."
Johnson said her organization hopes to work on these issues in the future.
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