Louisiana remains the country’s prison capital by a long shot, but a federal report released Tuesday shows the number of people imprisoned in the state has dipped slightly.
The report, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicates Louisiana’s prison population fell by 2.2 percent to below 40,000 last year after eclipsing the threshold for the first time in 2012.
Jimmy LeBlanc, head of the state’s Department of Corrections and Public Safety, expressed cautious optimism about the trend in an interview this spring.
“We’ve never been on a trend like we’re on now for so many months, where it continues to drop,” LeBlanc said at the time. “So some good things are starting.”
In a statement on Tuesday, LeBlanc partly attributed the incarceration decline to work being done by the state to improve re-entry programs that help integrate recently released prisoners back into society. In addition, expanded pre-release education is being provided to inmates preparing for freedom. Also, an effort has been made to enhance services available to offenders who are out on supervised release, Leblanc said in the statement.
At the end of 2012, Louisiana had 40,170 prisoners. By the end of 2013, there were 39,298, a decline of nearly 900 people, according to the federal report.
The drop, while noticeable, did not change the fact the Louisiana imprisons more people per capita than any other state.
According to the report, Louisiana’s adult imprisonment rate — or the number of people sentenced to more than one year in either federal or state prison per 100,000 residents 18 or older — was 1,114.
No other state’s rate eclipsed 1,000. Mississippi recorded the second-highest imprisonment rate with 918 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 adults. Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas were the only other states with rates above 800, according to the report.
The change in Louisiana contrasted the national trend, in which the country’s population of incarcerated people increased slightly — by about 5,000 — to a total of 1,516,879 inmates in 2013, according to the report.
“It appears to be a very small bright spot given how far Louisiana has to go,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the nation’s sprawling prison population.
Ed Shihadeh, a criminologist at LSU who has studied recidivism rates in Louisiana prisons, predicted Tuesday that the number of people incarcerated in the state will continue to drop in the long term because of a favorable political climate. Some people on the right want to trim the prison system to save money, Shihadeh said, while others on the left see early release as an opportunity for redemption.
“So we are in the historical arc,” the professor said. “Now we are seeing this arc over, and we are kind of sliding down the other side of it.”
Louisiana remains tough on crime, Shihadeh said, and it will likely continue sending people to jail in droves. Therefore, the only politically palatable solution is early, supervised release for inmates who are least-likely to re-offend, he said.
“If you can increase supervised release, and at the same time stop them from coming back,” Shihadeh said, “then that will do a great deal to reduce the prison population.”
Keith Nordyke, a Baton Rouge pardon and parole lawyer who also has researched with Shihadeh ways to reduce the state’s prison population, described the delicacy of the subject as a balance between punishment and risk. The key is determining who is least-likely to re-offend. Eventually, the question becomes, “How much punishment do we want to pay for?” Nordyke said.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace. Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this story.