Local law enforcement officials are bracing for the release of the first group of inmates – about 1,400 convicts – under the new criminal justice system that was passed and signed into law earlier this year.
The numbers seem high, but that’s because the new law applies retroactively. Inmates will be released, starting Nov. 1, to the parish where they were convicted.
All 10 bills of a dramatic overhaul of Louisiana's criminal justice system have passed both …
“When you say 1,400 everybody thinks ‘Wow’,” said James LeBlanc, secretary for the Department of Corrections. “It’s not as alarming as people might think. We have this under control.”
The state already discharges about that many inmates each month, LeBlanc said Friday. Spread across the state that means even in the big cities only about 30 to 40 new cases will be added to the rolls of parole officers.
A more immediate concern is to get a system in place. About 16,000 inmates – some 40 percent of the current prison population – will soon meet the qualifications for early release under the new law.
Corrections personnel have been working overtime going over the records of each convict being considered. Lists have been sent to the sheriffs and prosecutors of inmates set for release in their jurisdiction.
The statewide list has 1,413 names but that could change as the review is being completed, LeBlanc said.
The 10 bills of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Package aimed at saving the state about $265 million over the next decade by reducing the state’s prison population 10 percent. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ package won bipartisan support as well as the backing of many in the business and faith communities.
Traditionally, it's been Louisiana's Democrats and liberal social justice advocates who have…
Under Act 280, when a nonviolent offender has served 35 percent of the sentence, the convict becomes eligible for parole. The standard had been 40 percent.
LeBlanc said that an inmate with a 10-year sentence would be getting out an average of 63 days early.
Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator is not persuaded and wants to slow down.
During a Thursday press conference, Prator pointed to a name on the list who he said had been arrested 52 times for dozens of crimes, including manslaughter, and was getting out prison seven years early.
"Do you think he's rehabilitated with that kind of record? I don't think so,” Prator told the televised news conference. "We need to take our time and do like some of the other states and have some programs that work on rehabilitation before we just open the gates."
“There’s never been a situation like this in the history of the state, so you’ve got a lot of unknowns,” said Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. Nearly everyone in law enforcement has been fretting the arrival of Nov. 1. “Now that it has come, the best way to deal with it is meeting it head on,” Ranatza said.
Sheriffs want to know how “good time” is computed and how the state is applying the violent and nonviolent classifications.
The state’s sheriffs set up a system Friday to directly call LeBlanc – he gave out his cell phone number – to ask their questions and address their concerns.
Prosecutors also are concerned, said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys’ Association.
“Our guys are going through the lists now. There are a few egregious people on the list and we’re told they’re not going to be released,” Adams said Friday, adding that while LeBlanc is trusted, prosecutors are taking a wait and see approach to see how the Corrections department handles problems as they arise.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III plans to track the 50 or so inmates that are on the list to be released. He’s looking to see what kind of services they receive and how closely the newly released inmates are monitored.
“We’re trying to identify those who, unfortunately, might become rearrested. We want to gather the data to see if this idea works, to see if it’s a good idea or not,” Moore said. “Everybody is new at this. They truly believe this will help. I hope that’s the case but I’m really skeptical right now.”
About 80 percent of the inmates will be discharged from parish jails, as opposed to state prisons, LeBlanc said. Those convicts usually have committed less serious offenses.
But those parish jail inmates also receive fewer services than those coming out of state penitentiaries.
LeBlanc said his department is working to beef up, risk assessments, reentry centers and transition programs.
The new law also required that half of the money saved in the first year go toward community supervision, substance abuse treatments, education and employment services.
“We feel comfortable that we’re doing the right thing here,” LeBlanc said. “It’s the start of a new process for the criminal justice system. It may be a little painful. It’s not going to be perfect. But in the big picture is this is huge step in the right direction.”