Probation Officers Louisiana

In this March 16, 2017 file photo, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, listens as Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc talks about efforts to overhaul Louisiana's criminal justice system, in Baton Rouge, La. Edwards recently signed a package of bills overhauling criminal-sentencing laws. Under the laws, which take effect later this year, an estimated 1,200 additional inmates will be released on probation or parole within two years, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc has said. Veteran probation officers say the new laws will mean thousands of additional people for them to supervise, with a minimal increase in compensation for the larger workload. 

AP Photo by Melinda Deslatte

It would be nice to believe there could be a risk-free way to reduce Louisiana's prison population, but there isn't.

When the state's typical first-of-the-month release of a thousand or so prisoners who have served their time occurs today, there will be many more names on the list. About 1,900 offenders will be allowed an earlier release than they might otherwise have achieved because of criminal justice reform legislation supported by a coalition of conservatives and liberals.

Whether the convicts were eligible anyway, or are allowed a Nov. 1 release because of new laws aimed at paroling nonviolent offenders, there is always a chance that some of them will break the peace again. It is the nature of the corrections business.

But the corrections bureaucracy is a huge financial drain for the taxpayers of Louisiana, and it's not very good at educating and training former inmates to become contributing members of society. A broad coalition of civic groups spanning the political spectrum, along with Gov. John Bel Edwards and most legislators and many in law enforcement, understand that the staggering cost of being No. 1 per capita in jail population must be reduced.

Other states were ahead of us. Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and a number of other Southern states have passed more far-reaching bills than those in the 2017 Legislature.

The facts? On average, according to the governor's office, offenders will be released eight weeks earlier than originally scheduled. Those eligible for early release must be nonviolent offenders. The goal is to reduce the prison population by 10 percent over the next decade, not all at once.

The intention behind the bipartisan prison reform legislation is to steer less-serious offenders away from prison. The money saved would go to strengthen probation, parole and pre-release education and job training.

Ending Louisiana’s incarceration culture has prompted fearmongering among some sheriffs — often financial beneficiaries of the state system of boarding out inmates to local jails — and other officials like Attorney General Jeff Landry. This should not be a venue for scoring political points. Nor should it be about penal payrolls in the parishes.

We cannot afford to go on this way. Thousands of community leaders have worked on these issues for years, including in faith-based organizations in the prisons and outside of them. Louisiana can make the public safer at a lower cost, as other states have done.

There is no 100 percent guarantee that, despite the long process of preparation required by the Department of Corrections, a released inmate won't return to a life of crime. That peril existed all along, since the state releases offenders every month.

The policy choices have been hashed out at length, including in the laboratories of other states. We hope that the officials who have objections, at this late date, will be responsible in their criticisms, if in a year or so they still have them.

Our Views: Praised prison reform package is just the beginning of a long road ahead