No charges, but eye-opening findings from State Police probe into Angola payroll fraud _lowres

This April 22, 2009 photo shows a view of the front entrance of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. (AP file photo/Judi Bottoni)

New data on the ingredients of Louisiana's highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate show that the state imprisons people on convictions for nonviolent offenses at vastly higher rates than other states in the region with similar crime rates.

A report released Monday by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office, meanwhile, suggests the state could save $70 million in jail costs by shifting to drug courts nearly 9,000 convicts whose criminal histories are limited to drug possession.

Changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws — if they were targeted to allow judges to sentence thousands of drug offenders to probation and "community programming," rather than prison — could spark more than $100 million in savings, the report states.

The report, however, notes that many of the alternatives it suggests, such as drug and specialty courts, local re-entry programs and diversion programs in district attorneys' offices, are not available statewide and would need vast expansion. Likewise, probation resources and proven rehabilitation services are lacking at many local jails.

To relieve the pressure, the report suggests moving more convicts who are deemed "low-risk" off probation, while reducing the level of supervision for others.

The report adds new fodder for an ongoing, bipartisan push aimed at reducing the state's incarceration rate, which is by far the highest in the country, with 816 prisoners for every 100,000 residents as of 2014.

Oklahoma comes in second, at 700 prisoners per 100,000. Louisiana's incarceration rate is almost 30 percent higher than that of the No. 3 state, Alabama, which locks up 633 of every 100,000 people.

Gov. John Bel Edwards made reducing that level a priority during his campaign last year. A task force created by the Legislature has set about developing a package of proposed reforms in time for the 2017 legislative session.

Last month, Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working with the task force, presented an initial statistical portrait of a Louisiana prison population that has shrunk by 9 percent in three years, though even with that reduction the state's incarceration rate remains 73 percent above the national average.

Among the findings of the Pew report:

• Revocations of probation or parole account for 59 percent of prison admissions and 40 percent of the prison population.

• Drug possession is the most common crime for newly sentenced prisoners, and all of the 10 most common prison admission categories are for nonviolent offenses.

• Louisiana's crime rate is slightly higher than in most other states in the region, but its prison admission rate is much higher, driven by an admission rate for nonviolent prisoners that is 50 percent higher than that of Texas and nearly three times that of Florida.

• Louisiana prisoners actually serve less time on average, 2.5 years, than the average of eight nearby states with similar crime rates.

• More than half of new prison sentences for drug crimes are for possession only.

In Monday's report, Purpera's office makes five recommendations to reduce the state's incarceration rate.

The first would expand specialty courts and pretrial diversion programs. The report says drug courts provide a proven cost savings, though data on other specialty courts and district attorney diversion programs are lacking.

The report also recommends reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and the habitual-offender law for nonviolent offenses. State law now lays out mandatory minimum sentences for 164 nonviolent crimes, more than double the total for violent crimes, the report states.

More than three out of four sentences invoked under the habitual-offender law over a six-year period were for nonviolent offenses, the report states, although earlier violent crimes may have counted against some of those defendants. 

Expanding rehabilitation programs in local jails, broadening local re-entry programs and "expanding strategies" to focus parole and probation officers on the riskiest convicts, not on those deemed low-risk, round out the recommendations.

"While incarceration is necessary for offenders who pose a threat to public safety, implementing strategies to reduce Louisiana's incarceration rate, especially for nonviolent offenders, could reduce costs and still keep the public safe," the report says.

In a letter in response to a draft of the report last month, state Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said the department agrees with all of the recommendations, but he expressed concern about "the potential negative impact that the expansion of reduced supervision levels could have."

LeBlanc wrote that moving more probationers swiftly off parole and making medium-level cases eligible for self-reporting would "pose public safety concerns," and that statutory changes would be needed for early termination of parole.

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, noted that the report's figures, showing that 59 percent of state prisoners were put behind bars for nonviolent offenses, discount many cases in which defendants actually faced charges of violent crimes but pleaded guilty to lesser offenses in return for reduced prison terms.

In a letter to Purpera's office, Adams balked at the idea of requiring district attorneys to collect and report data on recidivism and the costs of pre-trial diversion programs run by district attorneys, to justify a possible injection of state money to expand them. Adams wrote that the state has never funded those programs, and "we do not anticipate any such funding or resources in the future."

Adams expressed concern over empty promises to beef up resources for local rehabilitation and probation.

"As we experienced in juvenile justice reform, promises to increase services such as 'community programming' or probation supervision are quickly forgotten in lean budget years," he wrote.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.