Inside the Baton Rouge prison: photos

Barbed wire and fencing stretches across the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison's exterior.

Almost 2,000 prisoners walked away from Louisiana prisons, jails and parole offices Wednesday, the first to benefit from a new law to shrink the sentences of non-violent inmates in an effort to reduce the state's sky-high incarceration rate. 

Even as the inmates moved on to life on the outside, local law enforcement officials expressed concern about whether Louisiana has done enough to prepare for their release, while criminal justice reform advocates said they are working on ramping up services. 

The law releasing this group of prisoners was a part of the 10-bill criminal justice package passed in the spring, which proponents said would save money by reducing the number of locked-up offenders and, over time, chip away at an incarceration rate that has remained the highest in the nation for many years. 

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he believes the intent to release these inmates — 128 of whom were prosecuted in his parish —came from a good place, but he worries about their long term success without more help. 

"Our concern is that these people are just being released, without a whole lot of assistance being given to them," Moore said. "We're just not giving them any help. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

He said he wishes the Legislature pushed for these changes in sentencing along with more reentry assistance. Under the law, nonviolent offenders are eligible for “good time” release after serving 35 percent of their sentence, down from 40 percent before the change, which also applies retroactively. The average prisoner is getting out around 60 to 90 days earlier.

But Kelly Orians, an attorney for the nonprofit The First 72+ based in New Orleans that works to support the formerly incarcerated, said these prisoners who are getting out under the accelerated release were going to be leaving state prisons or local jails either way, whether it was later this month or in the coming year. 

"It's not an overwhelming number at all, it's an absolute necessity," Orians said. "We have to address mass incarceration."

She said there are never enough resources to help former prisoners address the hurdles they encounter after their sentences, but she doesn't think that means they shouldn't walk free. Orians said organizations across the state, like her own, have known this date was coming and have done what they can to be ready. She has been leading classes across southeast Louisiana to educate lawyers how to best assist this specific population with legal issues they might encounter, and has a growing list of these attorneys ready to volunteer on their behalf. 

"We have been prepared generally to see an increase in people getting out," Orians said. "Over the last couple of months we have been refining our intake system and our procedures in the office so we can operate as quickly as possible.... (but) of course we are limited in our capacity."

Dennis Schrantz, a co-director of the state's Center for Justice Innovation which works on reentry programs both inside and outside of prison, said he agrees with Moore that there should be more programs for the formerly incarcerated. He's spearheading the Louisiana Prison Reentry Initiative, a new state program set for implementation in 2018 that would bring strategic planning and personal evaluations to a segment of prisoners reentering the five biggest parishes. While, the program will not fully apply to Wednesday's newly released prisoners, Schrantz said through its development they have created a stronger network for the formerly incarcerated.

"We've done a better job of saying who has the resources and how to connect with them," Schrantz said. "(But) it's not like the system has improved because the Legislature decided to release (this group)."

Ricky Babin, the District Attorney for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, said his main concern, however, is that these offenders could pose a threat for citizens. They went through the 30 prisoners from his district who were released and found red flags in their criminal histories. 

A lot of them were, true, lower level offenders, but some might pose a more heightened risk than the charge they were convicted under, Babin said. This could happen, for example, if a prisoner took a plea deal. 

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But others countered that these inmates are like others who routinely leave Louisiana's prisons.

"Apprehension (about this issue has made it seem like) there's a greater public risk with this group, and there isn't," said Andrew Hundley, formerly incarcerated himself, and now the co-director of the Center for Justice Innovation, which works on reentry programs in and out of prisons. 

He said he hopes the atmosphere around this release will not affect the chance at employment for these prisoners, many of whom have learned trades or skills while behind bars. 

"There is of course some risk here. It's a risk the state's decided to take," Schratz said. "When you start to reverse these things, there is some risk, but it's a risk the legislature has decided to take, and law enforcement supported... I don't think that folks should be overly concerned."

These released offenders are expected to return to the parish where they were prosecuted: 164 from Caddo, 139 from Jefferson, 139 from Orleans, 82 from St. Tammany, 60 from Lafayette, according to numbers from the state Department of Corrections and Public Safety. 

The November spike in released prisoners is not a trend people should expect to see for the coming months, said Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick. After this release, Pastorick said the corrections agency expects the number of releases to be just a bit more than the previous monthly averages —  typically around 1,500 prisoners.

Louisiana releasing more than 1,900 inmates early; here's why

Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections, noted that the release Wednesday is modest compared to the 18,000 state inmates who walk out of prisons every year. He hopes the public views it as an opportunity to reset the state’s relationship with incarceration.

LeBlanc said that for years, few people have asked him about the services available to inmates upon their release. In the past few weeks, he has suddenly been deluged with questions.

“Nobody seemed to care, and now everybody’s caring, and I am excited about that,” he said.

The long-term goal of the criminal justice reform package is to take money away from incarceration and redirect some of it toward rehabilitation and re-entry services.

“This is an investment, it’s not an expense. We’re going to continue to save money with this investment. Those savings will grow over time, I assure you,” Leblanc said.

Moore said because of the gap he's seeing in services, he hopes to set up a way to support these prisoners on his own by meeting with the former inmates, asking what their needs are and then introducing them to specific resources in the community. 

"We're going to be able to deal with this because they're coming anyway, the tougher part is doing 1,900 on one day," Moore said. 

Advocate staff writers Matt Sledge and Mark Ballard contributed to this report. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.