Looking at the depth of the proposed budget cuts, prosecutors are approaching the upcoming special session with a sense of dread about the success of the criminal justice package that they signed onto and already has led to thousands of convicted criminals being released early.
“We’re just anxious,” Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said last week in an interview.
“We got this promise on reinvestment on the criminal justice reform last year…,” he trails off, then repeats: “We’re just anxious.”
He is not alone.
Officials from healthcare to higher education to the business community are nervous about becoming “the guy behind the tree,” who Russell Long once said Louisiana politicians are wont to saddle with the responsibility of paying the state’s bills.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is bound by law to draft a spending plan that matches expected revenues. And with a $1 billion shortfall — a little less than a third of money lawmakers have available to balance the budget — his spending proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is rife with deep cuts to state programs unless legislators agree to raise some taxes.
The starting point for budget negotiations is so far back that law enforcement is worried what the finish line will look like.
Last year’s package of criminal justice bills has been about the only thing accomplished by Edwards and Legislature’s Class of 2016, bogged down as they are in petty partisan bickering. The idea is to reduce prison time for nonviolent offenders and nudge Louisiana out of the world’s top spot for imprisoning its own citizens — nearly three times the incarceration rate per 100,000 residents than Cuba, Russia, and Rwanda in 2013.
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Seventy percent of the savings the state would realize from not having to care for so many people behind bars would go to programs to help the newly released adjust to the outside world and not commit new crimes.
Adams points out those “savings” weren’t included in the budget proposal.
“My members remind me often that we accepted in good faith that those investments would be forthcoming,” Adams said. “The current recidivism rate is high and it’s going to get higher, if we don’t provide them services. Public safety is going to be at risk.”
A poor track record for fulfilling promises adds to the concern.
The new “Raise the Age” law begins in July, and there’s no money in the budget proposal for the Office of Juvenile Justice to handle what is expected to be an increase in 17-year-old criminals no longer being thrown into adult prisons, Adams said. And the base $45,000 pay the state provides for assistant prosecutors is being reduced to $5,000. The sheriffs are set to lose $5 more from a daily rate that already doesn’t cover the expenses of housing, feeding, transporting and caring for about 20,000 of the state’s prisoners in parish jails.
With all these cuts on the table, spending on parolees could take a lower priority.
The 2004 adoption of the “Missouri Model” for juvenile offenders plays into those worries.
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The therapeutic approach that leaned on rehabilitative services over confinement started great guns in Louisiana with upgrades to juvenile holding facilities and lots of programs in tap. But the funding declined as lawmakers, facing massive budget deficits, chose to add more lucrative tax breaks hoping to spur the economy. What the state ended up with was more relaxed punishments and fewer services for the troubled youth.
Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc says the lesson learned from the “Missouri Model” experience is precisely why law enforcement’s anxiety, which he understands, is misplaced.
A decade ago the changes to the juvenile justice system were enacted largely by gubernatorial fiat. That made it easier for a new governor and a new Legislature to put juvenile justice funding on the to-do list.
“They didn’t pass legislation, we did,” LeBlanc said. Directing savings to support programs “is a key component of the reform that says, in law; this is how the money will be spent.”
Funds to help parolees will be in the preamble of the budget bill, where monies get moved around from one program to another, LeBlanc said. For the upcoming fiscal year, the savings could be as much as $11 million rather than the initial $6 million estimate, he said.
“The money will be there,” LeBlanc said.