A thorny reality confronts Louisiana lawmakers as they begin to consider a series of measures designed to hack away at the nation's highest incarceration rate.

The inmates with the biggest impact on the prison population, according to state data, may also be the bloodiest.

Though much of the discussion over a raft of criminal justice reforms headed for the Legislature this spring has focused on those sent to prison for nonviolent crimes — drug or property offenses like burglary — it's a smaller group of inmates serving extremely long sentences that have an outsized impact on Louisiana's prison population and, by extension, the state budget.

The average inmate arriving at a state prison each year will spend less than three years behind bars. But the relatively small cadre of long-serving prisoners, most of them convicted of violent and serious crimes, consumed far more prison resources — measured by nights in a prison cot, by tax dollars spent to house and feed them or by mounting doctors' bills as they age — than any other group.

Advocates for a far-reaching reworking of Louisiana's sentencing laws and prison system point to those numbers as they argue that an exclusive focus on nonviolent offenders won't bring about the kind of transformative reduction in the prison population needed to shed Louisiana's dubious distinction as the world's most jailed place.

"You have this double whammy going on. The more expensive inmates and the number of them have been increasing greatly. That's really the money issue," said State Public Defender Jay Dixon.

But proposals to cut prison terms or offer a chance at release to violent criminals serving life sentences have also attracted the stiffest opposition. As Louisiana lawmakers prepare to debate a raft of criminal justice reforms prepared by the governor's Justice Reinvestment Task Force, that is where the sharpest battle lines have been drawn.

The state's district attorneys argue that giving parole eligibility to murderers, rapists and armed robbers poses a threat to public safety and breaks promises to victims.

Bo Duhé, a member of the task force and the district attorney for the three-parish 16th Judicial District in Acadiana, said the vast majority of lifers "forfeited the right to live in a free society" when they committed brutal crimes. The task force, he said, should have remained focused only on less serious offenses.

"We should take lower-level offenders, nonviolent offenders, and try to rehabilitate them, and truly reserve the prison space for your serious and violent offenders," he said.

Sentence reductions

A bill included in the package of reforms endorsed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and based on the task force's recommendations would offer parole eligibility to inmates serving life sentences who have spent 30 years behind bars and have reached their 50th birthdays. For those serving long sentences less than life — for charges such as armed robbery, which carries a maximum 99-year sentence — Senate Bill 139 by state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, would require them to serve 20 years and reach age 45 before earning a shot before the parole board.

But the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, which has voiced cautious support for some other proposals in the package, opposes offering early release to those serving life and also making changes to the sentences for violent crimes apply to those already in prison.

Reform efforts, say leading prosecutors, should remain squarely focused on keeping low-level offenders out of prison through expanded use of probation or by sending more defendants into drug courts and other programs. 

The numbers show that Louisiana, which locks up a higher proportion of its residents than any other place in the world, is an outlier on several fronts. According to a review of Department of Public Safety and Corrections data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Louisiana sends people to prison for nonviolent offenses at twice the rate of South Carolina and nearly three times the rate of Florida — two states with nearly identical crime rates. But violent criminals, many convicted of horrific crimes, also serve longer sentences here than in other states.

While the number of new state prisoners began to decline in 2012, the average time served by Louisiana inmates rose by 27 percent over the past decade, to just shy of six years in 2015. That's mostly because those who have been locked up for a decade or more make up by far the fastest-growing share of the state's prison rolls, according to the Pew analysis.

The average sentence handed down to those convicted of drug or property offenses dipped slightly over the past decade. But for those convicted of violent crimes, it's continued to rise.

This trend is also reflected in the release data. More than half of the 18,000 Louisiana inmates who returned home in 2015 after serving time behind bars spent less than a year in the system. Just a fraction of them — 605 people, according to Department of Corrections figures — spent more than a decade on the inside before being released.

Yet that small group of long-serving inmates consumed far more prison resources than any other group. Those 605 people, having spent an average of 18 years in prison, accounted for nearly four times as many nights in cells or bunks as the 9,340 who walked out in less than 12 months.

Thousands more inmates are serving with virtually no chance of release. One in seven state prisoners — more than 4,800 in all — have been sentenced to life without possibility of parole, most for murder or aggravated rape.

"If you divert one-year sentences, you don't have much impact on the prison population because their length of stay is so short," said James Austin, president of the national consulting group JFA Associates, which has studied the state prison population.

'Criminal menopause'

Louisiana's unusually large population of lifers — prisoners convicted of murder, aggravated rape or aggravated kidnapping — pushes the average time served upward. Lifers now make up 13 percent of the prison population in Louisiana, the only state in the South where virtually none of them are eligible for parole — a result of the state's decades-old "life means life" laws.

Proponents of parole opportunity for the state's lifers — whose only hope for release at present is a pardon or commutation from the governor — point to research indicating older inmates who've spent decades behind bars are at particularly low risk of committing new offenses.

Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc often refers to the phenomenon as "criminal menopause," referring to aging men decades removed from their crimes who've outgrown the street life of their youth.

As the number of aging, long-serving inmates has stacked up in the state's prisons, the cost for their health care has grown.

LeBlanc told a state House committee last week that one chronically ill prisoner costs the state upwards of $1 million per year in medical expenses. Although an extreme case, that man's medical costs reflect the growing hospital bill for an aging population of inmates sentenced to die inside prison.

Nearly two-thirds of state inmates who have remained behind bars the longest are older than 45, according to DOC data. Nearly half of those inmates committed their crimes when they were 24 or younger, and more than 42 percent of them have now spent more than three decades in prison.

LeBlanc wasn't available for an interview for this story. But LeBlanc has vocally pushed for parole opportunities for the longest-serving inmates for years, arguing that many of them have undergone dramatic changes after decades in prison, and asked lawmakers to allow him to release chronically ill or dying inmates so they can be treated on the outside.

Since lifers and other long-serving inmates are largely driving the rise in average prison stays, granting them a chance at parole or earlier release may be the most effective way of reversing that course, said Austin, the prison analyst.

"If you take an average length of stay ... down from 40 months to 30 months, that would reduce the prison population by 25 percent," Austin said. "You can see that length of stay is really what you need to work on."

Under current law, only a pardon or commutation from the governor can free those serving life sentences. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has used that authority to free a number of long-serving inmates after his predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal, let nearly every recommendation from the state's Pardon-Parole Board languish on his desk.

For prosecutors, though, the growth in the number of long-serving inmates in the state system is not necessarily a worrying trend.

Hillar Moore III, the East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney who's been a vocal presence at the Legislature, said the current commutation process already provides a chance for truly reformed inmates to return home.

Although data from other states show that those released after serving decades in prison are at relatively low risk of committing new crimes, Moore maintained that the devastation and trauma caused by a murder or rape demand retributive justice.

"I think that there is a certain time that people age out of criminal behavior," Moore said. "But we still go back to the victim and what the victim expects. The criminal is aging out (of violent behavior), but their victim is still dead. The victims — we're not doing anything for their families and generations of their family that are suffering for what that inmate caused."

For violent offenses that aren't life, Louisiana requires convicts to serve 75 percent of their prison sentences, compared with 50 percent in Mississippi and Texas and 33 percent in Georgia and South Carolina. Among the task force recommendations is to reduce the mandatory share of prison sentences that Louisiana inmates without prior violent offenses must serve to 55 percent.

The state ends up paying more money to take care of inmates the longer they're held and the older they grow, said Dixon, the public defender. "It's the largest old folks home in the state."

"We're spending millions of dollars to watch them die. How about letting them out on furlough, applying for Medicaid and having someone else pay for it?" said Dixon. "They're not going to make a mad dash. They're dying."

Elain Ellerbe, state director for the conservative prison reform group Right on Crime, called Louisiana's high rate of incarceration the product of decades of failed tough-on-crime policies — and blamed the state's district attorneys for using "scare tactics" to stand in the way of needed change.

Ellerbe, who worked with prisoners while developing re-entry programs before joining Right on Crime, said those serving lengthy sentences — including life terms — need to be given the opportunity to make their case for release to the Pardon-Parole Board, which would decide on an individual basis if inmates are fit for release.

"At the end of the day, there are some people (in prison) that are so broken that they're close to irredeemable. But we've continued to sacrifice the redeemable for those that can't," Ellerbe said. "We've been doing that for decades, and we just can't continue to do that. We've got to do something different."

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.