Louisiana corrections officials hope to build on their success from the last decade when former inmates returned to prison at decreasing rates with a renewed federal grant focusing on recidivism of high-need prisoners and using state savings from its criminal justice reforms. 

This year, the bayou state will bring back its most-successful initiative, focusing on inmates with both mental illness and substance abuse disorders as they complete their sentences. The new Second Chance Act funding will work with these prisoners returning to the Baton Rouge and St. Tammany areas before and after their release. 

From 2004 to 2014, the rate in Louisiana of ex-convicts who returned to prison within three years of their release decreased by 12 percent, according to a national justice organization's November report on prisoners affected by Second Chance Act programs. The report shows that almost 39 of every 100 such former inmates in Louisiana returned to prison within a three year window in 2004, but in 2014, 34 per 100 did. The numbers are not reflective of the entire state's prison population, but only the a portion involved in two programs that focused on high-need and high-risk offenders, according to corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick. 

The report analyzed recidivism rates for 11 states that utilized federal funds from the Second Chance Act to implement innovative programs to support vulnerable prison populations returning to society; Louisiana had used three such grants since 2011.    

"We started actively cooperating in the community post-release to get them engaged; that had a significant effect," Department of Corrections Assistant Secretary Rhett Covington said in an interview Wednesday. "We went from a zero percent post-release treatment engagement to an 83 percent post-release treatment engagement.”

In 2011 and 2014, Louisiana's corrections department was awarded two $600,000 grants to work with inmates with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders, increasing peer mentorship, their access to local service providers and support from probation and parole officers. Working with 400 inmates over about four years, the New Beginnings program was featured as one of the productive reentry initiatives that helped reduce recidivism in the November report from The Council of State Governments Justice Center. The report notes about 11 percent of prison populations have co-occurring mental illnesses and substance addictions, a group that Covington said returns to prison after release almost automatically — without intervention. 

But after an about two-years hiatus of the New Beginnings program without federal funding, Covington said the Justice Department chose this fall to fund the initiative once again with an almost $750,000 grant. This two-year grant will focus on the same work, intervening with this population before their release and interacting after for about eight months, in Baton Rouge and St. Tammany, partnering with the Capital Area Human Services and Florida Parishes Human Services nonprofits. 

State Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said this is just one of the many initiatives ongoing to help reduce recidivism in the state. He said after this federal grant expires, he hopes to sustain the work through their own funding, which could come from the continued savings from the state's criminal justice reforms, which passed in 2017 to decrease the state's then-highest incarceration rate in the nation. This year, after implementing the changes to the sentencing and release stipulations, the state earmarked $8.54 million to certain prison efforts, like recidivism. 

"If it’s working, we need to find a way to fund it on a permanent basis. What better way than justice reinvestment?” LeBlanc said of rerouting savings from the state's criminal justice reform to support prisoners.

The third grant, which ran for one year in 2012 and was just short of $1 million, focused on high-risk offenders — younger, often gang-involved — who were released to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. While some of the practices from that grant are still in use, like having parole officers focus on being supporters not enforcers, it has not been renewed and Covington said they don't have plans to fund it themselves.

While LeBlanc said renewed grants and positive reports from the Second Chance Act are important, they are just a portion of their work to revamp the state's incarceration system.

"This is important, but (other) big things to come," LeBlanc said. "We need help from our communities, our business communities, our faith-based communities, our nonprofit organizations, everybody has to participate.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.