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Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Inmates look out onto the Pontchartrain expressway from the new Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans. 

After many years as the nation’s leading jailer, Louisiana has ceded that ignominious title to Oklahoma.

The Sooner State now incarcerates 719 people per 100,000 residents, compared with 712 per 100,000 residents in Louisiana, according to recent inmate figures and the latest state population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Both states remain solidly above all others in prisoners per capita. Mississippi, Arizona and Arkansas rounded out the top five incarcerating states as of 2016, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.

Gov. John Bel Edwards mentioned Louisiana's new standing as the nation's second-leading jailer on his radio show Wednesday in response to a question about legalizing marijuana.

"Louisiana is no longer leading the nation in terms of our incarceration rate for the first time in decades," he crowed.

The passing of the troublesome torch was widely anticipated to happen at some point this year following the Louisiana Legislature’s passage of 10 criminal justice reform bills in 2017. In his campaign for governor, Edwards had pledged to leave the “prison capital” title to another state.

Louisiana could soon lose title as incarceration capital, with or without reforms

The 2017 measures, which included prison-time reductions for many nonviolent offenders that led to a wave of early releases last fall, were aimed at redirecting an estimated $262 million in savings over 10 years from emptied prison beds into re-entry, treatment and other programs that target recidivism, or a return to criminal activity by former inmates.

Unlike Louisiana, which has shed several thousand inmates from a peak in 2012, Oklahoma has been on a fast-rising vector, anticipating a 25 percent increase in its prison population over the next decade.

Similar attempts at reform in Oklahoma, led by Gov. Mary Fallin, fell short last year. But in April, Fallin signed seven reform bills that figure to at least cut that projected increase in half. Still, Oklahoma's inmate population figures to keep rising, said Andrew Speno, Oklahoma director of Right on Crime, a conservative prison reform group. 

Partly driving Oklahoma’s over-the-top imprisonment figures is its nation-leading rate of locking up women.

Speno said Wednesday that Thailand is the world's leading jailer of women as a country, but that Oklahoma's rate of putting women behind bars is double that of Thailand.

Like Louisianians, Oklahomans are accustomed to finding themselves at the bottom of various state rankings, but "reaching the bottom of this list should alarm us more than normal," Speno said.

Peter Wagner, executive director of the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, said the data point to Louisiana's inmate losses — rather than Oklahoma's gains — as the primary driver in the change of position at the top of the nation's jailers.

Wagner's group took a wider look at people behind bars across the country in a study released this month. It relied on 2016 state and federal inmate figures but also included pre-trial detainees in local jails, people held in Indian country jails, juvenile detainees and those held by the U.S. Marshals Service.

That analysis placed Oklahoma in the top spot, with Louisiana second.  

Edwards' mention of Louisiana's slide from atop the nation's incarceration pyramid came two weeks after The Advocate requested a current inmate count from Louisiana corrections officials, seeking to compare it with the latest figures from Oklahoma.

Those officials failed to respond to that request until after Edwards spoke on his radio show Wednesday. Then, they acknowledged withholding the inmate tally from the newspaper pending plans for an official announcement.

The news amounts to a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy legislative season, with Edwards and state lawmakers still wrangling over raising revenue in a third special session. 

Earlier this month, Louisiana Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc offered a stark scenario in response to the Legislature's failure to make ends meet.

LeBlanc told The Advocate that the $75 million in cuts apportioned to his agency in a provisional budget could force the release of as many as 10,000 state inmates held in local jails — or nearly a third of the state's inmates.

10,000 inmates would need their release July 1 if budget slashed, corrections head says

However unlikely such an exodus from local jails would seem, it still would leave Louisiana's incarceration rate well above the national average.

The national incarceration rate at the end of 2016 was 397 inmates per 100,000 residents — about 45 percent below the current rates of Oklahoma and Louisiana.

That national incarceration rate trails only the Seychelles, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean with a penchant for jailing Somali pirates.

Staff writer Elizabeth Crisp contributed to this story.


Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.