Under the spotlight on the state's corrections department cast since the spring passage of prison reform, 23 new probation and parole officers graduated Thursday in what state Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc touts as a new era of criminal justice.
"This is historical for our state, you should be proud of that," LeBlanc told the graduates. "There may not be a lot of recognition in this business and you won't get rich … but you will have a lasting impact on the citizens of our state."
The statewide measures aimed at decreasing Louisiana's prison population — which has historically been double the national average — have subsequently dropped heavier caseloads on probation and parole officers, as sentences are shortened and the focus shifts toward prisoner reentry to the community.
The graduating officers, and current officers, are now each assigned to about 145 offenders, he said. Leblanc said he expect the caseloads to even out as the measures take hold and become everyday practice.
Crystal Clark, one of the graduates assigned to the Amite District covering Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, said she knows her caseload will be 142, but she predicts it won't be overwhelming.
"I've managed classes and paperwork and children," the former elementary school teacher said. "I'm still looking forward to helping people."
Kaitlin Cowley, who worked in juvenile justice in New Jersey but found her home with probation and parole after moving to Baton Rouge, said she knows it will be necessary to manage her time well with the heavy caseload, but she thinks it will pay off with the changes in the law.
"I'm excited to see what the turnaround is going to be with this," Cowley said, who will served the Baton Rouge district.
The officers began their academy in August, going through firearms training, physical fitness tests and academic classes.
Probation and Parole Director Curtis Fremin told the 23 new officers, who will serve across the state, that he hopes the changes they will help roll out to support newly released prisoners will make a path for other states to follow.
"(Probation and parole) is going in a different direction … and you're going to be part of changing the history in Louisiana," Fremin said.
The officers will now supervise — along with about 600 officers — the more than 70,000 offenders released into communities on probation and parole, LeBlanc said. And while he acknowledged there will be those who re-offend, who don't take advantage of the support, LeBlanc said the success stories will be worth it.
"You spend more time with offenders than any other law enforcement," LeBlanc said. "It's not just that one individual (you can help), it's their family, their community, their livelihood … it's the generations still to come."