A prison re-entry initiative that touts White House support and ample private funding will no longer include Louisiana in its pilot launch this spring, a last minute decision the effort’s organizers attribute to the state’s ongoing criminal justice reforms.
In January, Louisiana was named along with Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania as a future site for the “Safe Streets and Second Chances” initiative, a research-based program funded by Koch Industries that tracks and supports offenders leaving prison, aimed at reducing the recidivism rate. However, in the first week of April — less than a month from the anticipated launch date — leaders of the initiative decided to replace Louisiana with Kentucky for the first stage of the project, saying the timing in Louisiana had not been ideal.
Leaders from both the initiative and Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections would not point to a specific issue that caused the setback but said they plan to continue working together, hoping to bring the program and its research to the state in the future.
“We’re still very much interested in Louisiana, but the process is taking much longer than we thought,” said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries Inc., who is on the advisory council for the initiative. “It’s just timing.”
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Koch Industries, a subsidiary of the Kansas-based billionaire industrialist brothers Charles Koch and David Koch known for their politically conservative activism, are providing the funding for the program, Holden said.
The first phase of the initiative, ready to launch May 1 in the other three states as well as Kentucky, splits about $4 million from Koch Industries among the four to identify and track about 1,100 offenders soon leaving prison, providing individualized reentry plans and services, hoping to reduce the chances they end up back behind bars, said Carrie Pettus-Davis, the principal researcher for the initiative
Pettus-Davis and the teams she’s hired plan to enter corrections facilities in both rural and urban regions of the states, targeting willing prisoners who are nearing release dates with the initiative's five key components: healthy thinking patterns, meaningful work trajectories, effective coping strategies, positive social engagement and positive interpersonal relationships.
Pettus-Davis, an incoming associate professor at Florida State University, has been working directly with Louisiana officials. She said with the state’s other criminal justice reforms still just months from their start, they mutually decided to give those efforts time to pick up speed independently before adding another program.
“They devoted a lot of time to (Safe Streets and Second Chances), and they were very enthusiastic,” Pettus-Davis said of Louisiana’s corrections officials. “It just seemed cleaner to wait. ... There’s not a different level of engagement or support. It’s a timing issue.”
Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick reiterated the state’s continued interest in “Safe Streets and Second Chances,” and said officials believe it will fit better “phased in with the state’s criminal justice reform efforts in the fall.”
During last spring’s legislative session, lawmakers passed historically comprehensive criminal justice reforms, a bipartisan effort focused on reducing the state’s notoriously high incarceration rate — the highest in the U.S. — to ultimately save taxpayers' money and increase public safety. Now, the corrections department is working to reinvest those savings into its own program, the Louisiana Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which works to better assist offenders in their return to society.
That program will work in the five parishes with the most offenders — East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Caddo. Pastorick said the department has begun working with its first group released in St. Tammany, and hopes to scale up to the other four jurisdictions over the next few months.
Pastorick also said they are preparing to implement a web-based risk assessment tool and accompanying case plan to better identify offenders' needs and risks before they leave prison. He said the department is also working to increase educational opportunities and job skills certifications for offenders in state custody, and it is preparing to team up with community providers that can further support reentry.
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But some lawmakers this session proposed a string of "rollback" bills that take aim at some of the criminal justice reforms enacted last year. On Tuesday, the Governor’s Office, legislators and key criminal justice system players announced a compromise on those efforts.
Holden said their team first reached out in November to states who with a Right on Crime presence, a group that takes a conservative approach to criminal justice reform, which Louisiana did, along with states with similar criminal justice goals as Koch Industries.
That same month, Gov. John Bel Edwards met at the White House with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, about Louisiana’s success passing the 10-bill criminal justice reform package. Kushner and Trump later expressed their interest in common sense criminal justice reforms — a move Koch Industries capitalized on.
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However, Pastorick said Safe Street and Second Chances notified Louisiana corrections officials April 4 they would no longer be working with the state on the pilot program.
Holden told The Advocate in mid-March that they were working on the “final stages” of the project in Louisiana. At that time, Holden said the other states involved in the process had proceeded on a faster trajectory, but that “Louisiana will be finished and ready to go” when the program launched. Holden had tentatively identified East Baton Rouge and Tangipahoa parish prisons as the sites they hoped to use for the research-based project.
He clarified this past week that there were no specific roadblocks that led the project away from Louisiana.
“Our goal is to scale this up,” Holden said. “Hopefully, Louisiana is a part of it. … We’re still very committed to this. “
Holden also noted that with Koch Industries involved in the funding, there is not a limited pot of cash devoted to the pilot, emphasizing how there is enough funds to bring the same program back to Louisiana in the future.
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“We’re implementing the research across states in phases, so Louisiana is going to be in the second phase of the research study,” Pettus-Davis said. “We’re not entirely sure when that is going to start, but probably more toward the fall.”
However, Pettus-Davis was hesitant to commit to the fall, as she said there could be further hurdles or wrinkles they could face during their initial run. Pastorick said the corrections department is committed to making the initiative work in the fall.
“We’re definitely not pulling out of the state,” Pettus-Davis said.