A special task force will reveal on March 16 recommendations for how Louisiana should overhaul its criminal justice system and lower its highest-in-the-nation incarceration rates.

The Justice Reinvestment Task Force met on Thursday to debate final details that will be included in its report to the Louisiana Legislature later this month.

"We have a lot of momentum," said Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, chairman of the blue ribbon panel. "Overall, we've reached a lot of agreement."

Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked the state Legislature to make prison reform a top priority in the legislative session that begins in April.

The task force has spent the past nine months researching potential tactics the state could consider as it aims to reduce its prison population.

"Our criminal justice system needs major reformation," LeBlanc said. "It's costing taxpayers a ton of money and not getting outcomes."

The effort to overhaul the way the state goes about keeping criminals behind bars has drawn support from a broad bi-partisan coalition. It has made partners of groups that normally find themselves at odds. The powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and religiously conservative Louisiana Family Forum find themselves on the same side as the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that tend to be more liberal.

"I've never seen such bipartisan support and call for reform," LeBlanc said.

Among the ideas that the task force generally agrees the state should implement, it's calling for the expansion of alternatives to incarceration; revision of drug penalties to reserve long prison terms for high-level drug offenses; and modifying some justice financial obligations.

Supporters of the outline say that many other states have already implemented similar changes.

"This is the place that needs reform more than any other place in the south," said Will Harrell, the southern regional policy counsel for the ACLU.

Advocates for changes in the state's criminal justice laws packed two hearing rooms at the state Capitol as the task force discussed issues it hopes to address in its final report.

At various points, when speakers detailed the challenges that poor people, in particular, face trying to lift themselves out of the system, attendees applauded.

Meanwhile, several district attorneys urged the task force to keep a hard line approach to violent offenders.

Several speakers said that they hope the state will also focus on other areas to help bring the incarceration rate, including education and re-entry programs for ex-offenders.

"It's not just about wholesalely letting people out of jail," said Rep. Terry Landry, a New Iberia Democrat on the task force. "I've heard that out there, that we're about to just let people go, and that's not true."

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