Ridding Louisiana of its title as America's most incarcerated state was a major campaign pledge for Gov. John Bel Edwards.
But whether it happens, under a compromise reform package pending in the Legislature, may depend less on whether Louisiana's prison rolls shrink as expected than on what happens this week in a statehouse 500 miles away.
Lawmakers in Oklahoma, the only true challenger to Louisiana's unbecoming label, are grappling with a similar plan to revise drug penalties, allow earlier releases for nonviolent offenders, revamp parole rules and pour a hunk of the savings into re-entry programs, specialty courts and victim services.
Late last week, backers of the Oklahoma plan were pushing to wrest it out of a committee chaired by a former prosecutor who has repeatedly put off a hearing. The legislative session ends this Friday.
If that effort fails, Oklahoma is poised soon to overtake Louisiana, where 776 people per 100,000 residents were locked up under state or federal custody in 2015, federal figures show. Oklahoma stood at 719 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2015.
Alabama and Mississippi were further back, the third- and fourth-biggest jailers in America. Observers say nascent reforms in those two states have left them a safe distance from the top spot.
Unlike Louisiana, which has shed about 4,000 inmates from a peak in 2012, Oklahoma is on a steeply rising vector. The Sooner State is anticipating a 25 percent increase in its prison population over the next decade, even after nearly 60 percent of Oklahoma voters agreed in November to downgrade a host of drug and property crimes to misdemeanors.
Oklahoma already dominates Louisiana, and every other state, in its imprisonment rate for women, which is well over twice the national rate. Louisiana is 12th in jailing women.
"We have the highest female incarceration rate in the world. That alone should tell anyone something in Oklahoma is not working correctly," said Andrew Speno, Oklahoma state director of Right on Crime, a conservative prison-reform group. Speno blamed "some of the most draconian drug laws in the country" for the state's rising inmate rolls, with women setting the pace.
"We're not trying to overtake Louisiana in being No. 1," Speno said.
Oklahoma's reform plan would trim its inmate rolls by 7 percent over a decade, according to figures from the Crime and Justice Institute. Passage of those measures would likely leave Louisiana in the top spot regardless of what happens in Baton Rouge, the projections show.
Achieving a goal
But the Louisiana compromise, hammered out with the state's powerful district attorneys and sheriffs, achieves Edwards' campaign goal in one sense: It promises to drop Louisiana's incarceration rate to Oklahoma's current rate — and fast, according to projections from Pew Charitable Trusts.
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Louisiana's incarceration rate would fall to Oklahoma's current rate by the end of 2018 if the Legislature moves forward with the compromise plan, according to Pew.
If the legislation passes, several hundred inmates serving time for nonviolent crimes will find themselves poised for release on or shortly after Nov. 1, thanks to a bump in "good-time" credit, quicker parole eligibility and new rules allowing automatic parole releases for some.
The inmate population reductions expected in the early years under the compromise are actually steeper than those projected for the original legislation, which followed the recommendations of a state task force of criminal justice system stakeholders.
According to Pew, the compromise bills allow prison-time reductions for more nonviolent felons than were slotted for similar breaks under a proposed "felony class" system that the district attorneys torpedoed.
Other measures aimed at nonviolent offenders remain as well, although a proposal to double the threshold for what makes a theft a felony, from $750 to $1,500, was reduced to $1,000 under the compromise.
Even so, the total cost savings projected over the first three years under the compromise bills is virtually identical to what was projected under the original plan. Only later do the concessions made to the sheriffs and district attorneys begin to slow the cost savings and the expected decline in inmates.
Still, 86 percent of the savings projected over a decade under the original reform package remain under the negotiated reforms, according to Pew.
Louisiana's reform plan is projected to trim the state inmate population by 8 percent over 10 years, rather than a 2 percent rise expected if the Legislature does nothing.
The $262 million cost savings — down from $305 million in the original plan — is based on the $24.39 daily rate that the state pays local sheriffs to house about half of all state prisoners.
"The purpose of the effort was to focus on nonviolent offenders, and that's what we did," said E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. "We'll see what this does. Hopefully, it doesn't increase the risk to public safety significantly."
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Most of the proposals dealing with violent offenders were expected to reap savings later in the 10-year window — or afterward. Those violent offenders tend to receive longer sentences, and the aborted measures were never slated to be retroactive.
Without them, inmate population reductions are expected to slow in later years. In the 10th year, for instance, the proposed reforms are expected to reap $33 million in savings, compared to $42 million under the original plan.
Earlier shot at parole
A few measures dealing with some violent offenders remain. The compromise plan would grant an earlier shot at parole to first-time violent offenders who are sentenced after the law takes effect.
Also, a group of about 120 inmates who were convicted of second-degree murder in the 1970s and sentenced to life with a chance at parole, only to lose that eligibility under tough-on-crime laws, would win back a shot at release.
State Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc acknowledged that the reforms would do little to address the aging of the state prison population, which is "stacking up" with older, long-serving inmates who need more medical care. Medical expenses are not factored into the savings estimates.
LeBlanc, a key backer of the reforms, said he hopes to exploit a proposed medical furlough process to release some of the state's frailest, costliest inmates.
He also acknowledged that a surge in inmate releases in the first few years of the reforms will strain the state parole system. LeBlanc said he plans to move some parolees with good records into a self-reporting status to ease the crunch.
LeBlanc pointed to juvenile programs as a priority for the "reinvestment" aspect of the reforms. Under the compromise, 70 percent of the cost savings is earmarked for re-entry, treatment and crime victim programs, up from 50 percent under the original plan.
"We need to show the DAs and the sheriffs we mean business here, and we want to invest in the juvenile justice side of this, because we know it's a pipeline. I'm talking diversion, truancy programs. Those things need attention," LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc downplayed the goal of losing Louisiana's tag as the leading jailer in a country with the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. (The U.S. trails only Seychelles, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean with a penchant for locking up Somali pirates.)
"That's a bad label to have, but that's not what this is about," LeBlanc said of Louisiana's title. "It's about doing the right thing. I think we have a good package. I think we've done a lot of good. It's a big step for us."
LeBlanc said he visited the State Penitentiary at Angola last week to address inmates there, many of whom are serving long sentences for violent crimes.
"I told them this is not over with. This is our first step," he said. "I don't want them to give up, and we don't need to give up."