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State Rep. Walt Leger III, left, D-New Orleans, speaks as La. Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, right, looks on Thursday, March 16, 2017, during a meeting of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, at which where members detailed their plan for criminal justice reform during the upcoming legislative session.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

Starting at midnight and going throughout Wednesday morning, more than 1,900 convicted inmates are walking out of prisons across the state before their sentence is completed.

It’s the first step in a comprehensive criminal justice package aimed at prison populations that have made Louisiana a leader for having the nation’s highest incarceration rate.

The official release time at state prisons was 12:01 a.m., but Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said Tuesday only those with rides will leave that early, otherwise it’ll depend on when families arrive or bus schedules.

But 82 percent of state prisoners were serving their sentences in parish prisons. Their release will be determined by the local sheriffs, he said. “Most of these will be midmorning releases,” LeBlanc said.

Under the new law, nonviolent offenders are eligible for “good time” release after serving 35 percent of their sentence — down from 40 percent before the change, which is retroactive.

“Every (probation and parole) district office in our state, 21 of them, knows exactly who is coming to their district and know that the inmates are reporting 24 to 48 hours after their release,” LeBlanc said.

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East Baton Rouge Parish convicted 127 of the inmates being released early Wednesday. Another 138 came from Orleans and 138 more were sent to prison from Jefferson Parish courts. Eighty-one are from St. Tammany and 75 are from Livingston parishes, according to the Corrections Department list.

In most cases, the probation and parole officers already have met with the inmates and many inmates already have received prerelease services, LeBlanc said.

The latest list has 1,927 names of inmates being released, LeBlanc said.

The youngest, Jaquavion Slaton, of Grambling, turned 18 in April and was convicted on auto theft charges in Lincoln Parish. He will be walking out of Dixon Correctional Institute in the Baton Rouge suburb of Jackson.

The oldest is 78-year-old Deicie Washington Jr., who was arrested in 2015 for distribution of Schedule II drugs in Shreveport. He will be released from David Wade Correctional Center in Homer.

They’re the extremes as two of every three inmates being released are between the ages of 30 and 49.

Forty-three of the inmates were getting out just a few days early and another 382 were already scheduled for release later in November before the law took effect. About 115 had previous release dates in 2019 and 2020, according to the state Department of Corrections list.

About 1,100 of those being released, or 57 percent of the total, are African American, two are Hispanic, one is Asian and the rest are white people.

Louisiana houses approximately 35,000 inmates at any one time, even as about 18,000 are released from state prisons each year. “People are transitioning back to our communities every day,” LeBlanc said.

The release Wednesday is more than double the number of inmates released in an average month. LeBlanc said spreading the early releases among the 600 probation and parole agents on staff means about three new cases each.

“They’re overworked already. I know that. But it’s not as huge when you spread it out,” LeBlanc said.

Though the 10-bill package had the support of Democrats and Republicans, faith based and business communities, law enforcement and prosecutors, the first step in reducing prison populations and saving an estimated $262 million over the next decade hasn’t been without its detractors.

Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator criticized the legislative changes earlier this month. He said one prisoner set for early release from his Shreveport jail had been arrested 52 times.

“I’m not saying we don’t need to reform what we do, but certainly we need to take our time and do like some of the other states and have some programs to work on rehabilitation before we just open the gates and flood the streets with some of these people that don’t need to be out,” Prator said.

Prator held up a folder of paperwork on the “bad ones.”

“In addition to them, they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money. Well, they’re going to let them out, the ones that we use in the work-release program,” he said.

Video of those remarks spread on social media, with critics sensing racial overtones evocative of slavery, given the prison system’s demographics.

Attorney Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center of New Orleans, told The Associated Press that Prator and other Louisiana sheriffs have exploited inmates’ labor to build “prison empires.”

“Sheriff Prator’s sentiments are blatantly discriminatory and horrifying,” she said. “Unfortunately, they reflect the ugliness at the heart of the Louisiana prison system, a criminal justice system shaped by dehumanization and discrimination.”

Prator defended his comments, saying his “many years of public service prove beyond any doubt that I view all persons equally.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards said on his weekly radio program that he met with Prator to discuss the sheriff’s concerns and his remarks about the “good” inmates. “Those are the ones that all states are targeting for criminal justice reform measures,” he said during a radio call-in show.

The overhaul has already had some political impact.

State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, sponsor of the key bill in the criminal justice changes, said Tuesday he is convinced that charges that the legislation would let violent juveniles back on the street played a role in his failed bid for Jefferson Parish Council District 4. The accusation was leveled by Dominick Impastato, who defeated Martiny in a contest last month where the new state law played a role.

Martiny's bill expands probation eligibility to offenders and allows parole consideration for select inmates with life sentences.

The veteran state senator stands by the changes.

"We are spending way too much incarcerating people, and we are not getting the bang for our buck," he said.

Martiny said he knows that, under the new policies, an inmate who leaves earlier than he would have could get into trouble, and spark questions.

"That is the chance that you take," Martiny said. "But I don't know that we are going to be any worse than we were unless you want to lock up people for the rest of their lives."

State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who sponsored another measure in the 10-bill package, said the new rules make for an "easy issue to try to score political points by attacking it."

The fact that Texas and South Carolina have already taken similar steps, and seen drops in incarceration and crime, was a key selling point when the bills cleared the Legislature, Leger said.

"We are spending about $700 million a year on corrections," Leger said. "More importantly, being the incarceration capitol of the world and the nation has not made us any safer."

Leger's bill spells out that 70 percent of the savings will be allocated to public safety programs.

“I’ve discussed with sheriffs who have called that it would be prudent for us to not pass judgment beforehand and to stay reserved and to see how this is going to work out,” said Michael Ranatza, director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association.

Catherine Fontenot, major of corrections for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, said that on Oct. 19 about 200 inmates, their families and possible employers met in preparation for release day.

She said she hopes her parish, which has a fully staffed jail, will be a trailblazer in collecting some of the savings spawned by the changes.

"We have an outstanding program here and a long history of knowing what works and knowing what works is about education, health care, vocational skills and meeting with the resource providers in the area."

Prosecutors are worried about Louisiana’s lack of investment in rehabilitation programs for the released inmates.

Texas invested in rehabilitation and supervision programs prior to releasing inmates early, noted Ricky Babin, the district attorney for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. Louisiana is banking on the releases to create savings, which then would be put towards programs that address the needs of the recently released.

“We’re doing it in reverse,” Babin said. “But then I don’t think the state of Louisiana has the $40 million to put into upfront costs.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III would like to meet with the inmates being released, introduce them to businessmen and the faith-based community, acquaint them with programs that are available and the challenges they will face.

“We’re letting people out without the sufficient tools they will need to succeed. And based on historical data, that means 45 percent of them will reoffend and return to prison,” Moore said.

Michael Kunzelman of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.