A year since the state passed massive criminal justice reforms, much of the focus has been on Louisiana newly shedding its notorious title as the nation’s top jailer.

But essential to safely cutting spending on prisons while reducing how often released prisoners re-offend is pumping earmarked savings into new inmate-release programming — a hefty undertaking for the state's corrections department, even more so after their latest effort to launch such a reentry initiative flopped. 

And sitting among those most concerned about the implementation of the so-called reinvestment — the next step of the reforms widely considered key to successfully shifting the way Louisiana addresses corrections — are many members of the governor's Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council. While they remain wholly committed to the principles behind the reforms and reinvestment, many feel their watchdog role thus far has been discounted, a worry only growing as many question if the community-based funds can actually reach the grassroots organizations as originally intended. 

Corrections Secretary James “Jimmy” LeBlanc admits his department faces a daunting task when it comes to effectively distributing community grants while also implementing innovative programs aimed at pivoting the state’s criminal justice system. But he said his team is committed to making it work.

“Everybody’s on board here,” LeBLanc said. "I think what everyone needs to understand is this is a culture shift for our state. This is not something you do overnight, it requires hard work and patience. … The real hard work really starts now."

In mid-July, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections reported saving $12.2 million in the first eight months following the implementation of the criminal justice reform package, which obligated $8.5 million of that amount for justice initiatives, as 70 percent of the savings were required by statute for reinvestments.

And despite lingering state budget woes and longstanding shortcomings in the corrections department's appropriations, almost all those funds — just shy of $8 million — have been made available for immediate spending. The reinvestment dollars are set to be split three ways: among internal Department of Corrections programs to reduce incarceration and recidivism, community grants for initiatives to help at-risk residents and those reentering society from prison and also for services to better support crime victims.

"The people who are celebrating are wrong, the people who are condemning are wrong,” said Jay Lapeyre, a board member for Smart on Crime, a conservative group that worked to pass the criminal justice reforms. "I see lots of missteps, but I also don’t live the reality of all the challenges. ... (but) there is no reason from a science and data point of view that this won't be effective, unless we don’t execute."

LeBlanc knows there have been some obstacles so far, but said his team is working to learn and improve from each challenge as it moves forward.

“We know the world’s watching, I know the governor’s watching," LeBlanc said. "I’m excited about where we are right now.  (But) the real numbers are down the the road. ... That is really critical (for) reducing prison populations and increasing public safety.”

'Early outcomes'

More than three years ago when Gov. John Bel Edwards campaigned on a promise to reduce the state’s prison population, Louisiana’s incarceration rate soared well beyond the national average, topping the list with the highest proportion of inmates per capita.

Backed by criminal justice research, Edwards planted a conservative argument for reforming criminal justice: the state was spending too much money on a broken system, one that was not increasing public safety or helping prisoners succeed after serving sentences.

After years of legwork, in June 2017 Edwards signed into law a 10-bill bipartisan package aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, increasing public safety and supporting crime victims.  While the majority of the reforms followed a path set out by other southern conservative states, Louisiana deviated in how it chose to fund the new initiatives to systemically change the corrections system. Instead of a substantial upfront investment, the funds would be reinvested only after the state saved money from releasing prisoners at a more accelerated rate.

And now, following the first year of the reforms' passage, Louisiana is gearing up for the first year of reinvestment, fueled by savings that almost doubled those predicted a year ago.

Comparing the state's current prison population with the count from October 2017, before the reforms took effect, officials totaled $12.2 million in savings, according to the Department of Corrections July report to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. Pew Charitable Trusts initially estimated the state would save about $6 million. 

“It’s good news for the state, it’s good news for taxpayers, it’s good news for anyone applying for those reinvestment grants,” said Terry Schuster, an associate manager of the public safety performance project with Pew. “We’re excited to see these early outcomes.”

LeBlanc credited the savings to recent numbers showing the prison population dipped below 35,000 for the first time in decades, a drop of almost 2,500 since November. LeBlanc also noted that in the same time frame, the number of people on probation and parole dropped about 6,000, bringing the total down to about 66,000. 

Seventy percent of the state’s savings are obligated for reinvestment, amounting to $8.54 million. About $4 million of the savings is dedicated to internal investments by the Department of Corrections for reentry services. Officials have said they plan to use the money to open a new prison reception center to improve intake of new offenders, for new reentry centers to help ease the transition for those leaving prison and to expand educational and vocational opportunities in state prisons and local jails.

A little more than $2.5 million, or 30 percent of the reinvestment funds, will be allocated by the Department of Corrections through a proposal process for parishes, judicial districts, local nonprofits or community groups for prison alternatives and reentry programming focused in the five parishes that contribute almost half of the state’s prison population: Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Caddo and St. Tammany. That proposal request was posted at the end of the June, and officials hope to issue awards in September.

The final 20 percent of the funds, about $1.7 million, is dedicated for services supporting crime victims. Jim Craft, executive director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, said in late June that money will be used to supplement the crime victim reparation fund, establish a Family Justice Center in the greater Baton Rouge region, implement a statewide electronic system for better victim notification and ti purchase forensic tools for the Louisiana Bureau of Investigations.

Every year after this, 20 percent of the reinvestment fund will go to the Office of Juvenile Justice, with the remaining 50 percent divided by the same proportions among the corrections department, community-based grants and victim services.

Chance for progress

Even before the criminal justice reforms took off in 2017, corrections consultant Dennis Schrantz had been working for years with Department of Corrections officials to develop the Louisiana Prisoner Reentry Initiative (LA-PRI), an evidence-based practice that partners community organizations with offenders upon their reentry to free society, aimed at reducing recidivism.

As early as 2016, Schrantz began meeting with community groups, corrections partners and local leaders in the chosen parishes of focus: Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Caddo and St. Tammany. The model for LA-PRI, developed from other nationwide programs, works to identify prisoners who have moderate-to-high needs or have a moderate-to-high risk of re-offending. Months before they are set for release from prison, the program helps them prepare and provides support as they transition back into the community, Schrantz said.

In the partnership, Department of Corrections officials must first evaluate offenders' risks and needs to identify those eligible for the program – with moderate to high needs or risks — to bring them to their home parish "reentry centers," typically a section of local jails with increased programming, Schrantz said.

Once close by, the local network of community organizations — from substance abuse and mental health providers to housing groups to educational and job support — can then work with the offenders to create a plan for reentry, engage with them in the months before their release and continue to support them as they navigate their reentry, Schrantz said. Most importantly, Schrantz said corrections officials are to then track the offenders progress for years to come, compiling data intended to actualize the hypothesis that with the right services, offenders can be successful, despite any initial predispositions. 

The LA-PRI group in St. Tammany parish quickly became one of the most organized, Schrantz said, able to efficiently collaborate among a host of service providers and ready by the fall of 2017 to get started.

In December 2017, St. Tammany's LA-PRI Community Coordinator Ann Kungel said corrections officials alerted them their parish had been chosen to pilot a first group of offenders. Kungel said they expected up to 20 participants in the parish's the reentry center to jump-start the LA-PRI process.

But, within weeks, the group of prisoners that corrections officials were supposed to have vetted crumbled. Some were released before Kungel and her La-PRI team could meet them, other moved out of state upon release and even more were determined to not be fit for the long-awaited program. The St. Tammany LA-PRI team, touted all spring by corrections officials as their pilot program, ended up with two offenders to support, however neither were moderate-to-high risk or need, Kungel said.

“It was basically trying to get some people to start the project, so it wasn’t the ideal moderate to high need total criteria,” Kungel said. “(We had) all this stuff is ready and sitting on go.”

While she and her team worked to support the two men through their release and stay in touch with them, despite their low need and risk assessment, Kungel said no more attempts have been made by DOC to try again, though they have been promised another group of prisoners.

Schrantz said the plan was to start working with another group of parishes — Ouachita, Calcasieu, Bossier, Livingston, Rapides, Lafayette, Terrebonne and Lafourche — after the pilot effort in St. Tammany got going last year.

Instead, the program stalled.

“We had hoped that was all taking place last year, so the hope was by now we would have done that,” Schrantz said. "And we haven’t, that’s a bit of a setback. ... For a lot of different reasons it didn’t work out very well, and we learned a lot and we’ve started that process over again."

In the interim, LA-PRI organizations in St. Tammany have begun working with other released prisoners, just not through the LA-PRI model. But Kungel and others are worried that without any progress, the years-long effort from community members and corrections officials could regress. 

“When committees and energized people sit that long inactive, they float away. There’s only so long you can say, ‘Let’s have another meeting,'" Kungel said. “All this stuff is ready and sitting on go.”

Rhett Covington, the assistant DOC secretary over programming and LA-PRI, chalked the failure in St. Tammany to a learning experience, and said that the department has had to delay LA-PRI work because of all the other initiatives and ongoing work they are spearheading.

“Anytime that you start a new pilot project you run into hurdles and problems,” Covington said. He said he realizes the all-volunteer LA-PRI community coalitions have been moving forward to meet their benchmarks with LA-PRI, but that DOC-led aspects of the model have not kept up. 

“I think they’re ready, I think we haven’t been ready," Covington said. "The staffing at DOC has been distracted." 

He described the St. Tammany effort as just one attempt to jump-start the initiative that came up flat. He and LeBlanc said despite the challenges and continued delays they are positive LA-PRI will get started soon, and hope the support of the reinvestment dollars in the communities will help. 

As an outsider looking in, Lapeyre said, he's concerned that continued missteps will reflect poorly on the whole reform effort.

"The more scrutiny we put to this … the better it will get, but also recognize, it doesn’t mean the reforms were a mistake, it doesn't mean the principles we're operating on were wrong,” Lapeyre said. "(But) if we don’t execute well, that will be used to undermine the reforms."

Concerned oversight

After a recent meeting where corrections leaders took questions about their community proposal request to be used to distribute the almost $2.5 million earmarked for community-led reentry initiatives, members of the governor’s Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council huddled in concern.

Some of the state’s greatest advocates for criminal justice reform, all tasked with monitoring the reinvestment funds, said they are worried about how the community money will be distributed.

“I think the way the process is set up is really going to be hard for community organizations to get involved,” said Oversight Council member Syrita Steib-Martin, the co-executive director a nonprofit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women. “They’re putting in controls that are going to make it virtually impossible for the community to participate.”

Steib-Martin along with state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, were most concerned about the insurance requirements and seemingly arduous performance measures laid out in the request for proposals.

“These contracts seem to be a little bit problematic for the grassroots out there, the nonprofits,” Landry said. He said going into this process, he thought those smaller groups would be the target of this community money.

Corrections department spokeswoman Natalie LaBorde said proposal request is set up with such strict parameters because LeBlanc promised the governor early on they would award the money in the most transparent way possible.

She said the requirements included in their request for proposal, like insurance and performance measures, are “standard procedures” mandated by the state for such a process.

Kungel said those stringent requirements have made it difficult for many organizations in her region to apply for the funding, unless they are under an umbrella organization that can be the official proposer.

“It’s a lot,” Kungel said. “(It has been especially) difficult for smaller organizations who do a lot of the work in reentry, to get a part of this thing.”

Most members of the Oversight Council are greatly concerned about what actual power they have to challenge a reinvestment move that could be headed the wrong direction.

“Up to this point, the Council has just been utilized as an audience to hear reports with little opportunity for substantive feedback,” wrote council member Elain Ellerbe, who is the state director for Right on Crime Louisiana, a conservative criminal justice group.

Despite some concerns, all involved in the criminal justice reform efforts believe they can be dealt with and the important work will get done. 

“This is the first step, ... we’re breaking new ground here," Landry said. "I realize we're going to have hiccups, but we have to go back and find out how did we get where we are now. We have to be sure the money is spent in a way that helps the recidivism rate in this state, helps get those people transitioned into the community, and become tax-paying citizens. That’s the end goal.”


Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.