State DOC Secty James LeBlanc 021618

Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc addresses the Justice Reinvestment Implementation Oversight Council on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

The head of the state’s prisons said Friday he’s concerned legislators facing a massive budget deficit may tap into the savings that came from last year’s criminal justice revamp.

It’s a worry that law enforcement officials also have expressed.

But Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said the governor backs spending the estimated $11 million savings on programs to help recently released inmates adjust to the outside world.

Legislators convene Monday for a special session dedicated to repairing a $1 billion hole in state revenues. The fix will require raising revenues and cutting services, thereby making the criminal justice savings a tempting target.

LeBlanc said he would spend time explaining to legislators that the money would provide the necessary services that would help keep the offenders from committing more crimes and being sent back to prison.

“That’s my challenge,” LeBlanc said in an interview. “They need to understand that this is an investment in public safety, not an expense.”

The goal of the criminal justice revamp is to reduce by 10 percent the number of Louisiana residents going to prison – the state leads the world in the ratio of its citizens serving time.

The state should save about $262 million over the next 10 years from not having to pay for housing and feeding as many people.

But, Louisiana’s high recidivism rate – one of every three inmates return to prison within three years of release – undermines the purpose of changing how the state administers and sentences convicted criminals, LeBlanc told the Justice Reinvestment Implementation Oversight Council. The 12-member panel is charged with tracking how the revamp is progressing.

Under one of the laws approved last year, most of the savings is supposed to go towards rehabilitation and reentry programs.

“In my opinion that’s mental health, substance abuse, housing, all the things that we know prevent people from getting back in the community and being normal operating individuals in our state,” LeBlanc said.

Twenty percent will go for victim services, including safety assessments, trauma-informed treatment and services for victims and survivors.

The remainder is targeted for reentry services, community supervision, work training, substance abuse and mental treatment services, education, transitional work programs, and similar programs to reduce recidivism.

Despite a possibility that legislators might divert the savings, LeBlanc said he is moving forward on requesting proposals from local groups and law enforcement on what programs they want.

“Rather than us telling them what we want, we need them to tell us what they think we need,” LeBlanc said.

He then talked about a long-term plan to raise some parish jails to the level of state prisons with work training, substance abuse and mental health treatments, education, and other programs needed to rehabilitate criminals.

The last state prison was built in the late 1980s and all the nine penitentiaries run at full capacity. About 20,000 state inmates – more than half – are housed in local jails that often don’t have adequate training and treatment programs, LeBlanc said.

For instance, the new jail in Plaquemines Parish houses about 320 state inmates among the population of about 440, said Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Gerald A. Turlich. LeBlanc said that facility and several others around the state, through an agreement with the sheriff, could receive more money and be turned into a quasi penitentiary.

“But we’d be asking more of them in terms of services provided,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said that was an example of what could be done down the road as the savings grow over the years.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.