Two years ago, Louisiana lawmakers joined with Gov. John Bel Edwards to approve sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system aimed at eliminating the state’s dubious distinction as America’s incarceration capital.
A broad coalition of conservative and liberal leaders supported the changes because they were smart on crime, allowing law enforcement officials to focus less on housing low-risk inmates and more on pursuing public safety.
But old habits are hard to break, as a recent Advocate story made clear. Now that Louisiana isn’t outsourcing as many state inmates to parish prisons, some local sheriffs are making up the difference by agreeing to house immigrant detainees.
It’s a lucrative gig for the parish politicos, who get an average of $65 a day for taking in immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s a lot more than the piddling state rate of less than $25 a prisoner — and a quick way to fill the bunks left empty in the big parish jails, which were often intentionally overbuilt to accommodate outside business.
Jails in Bossier, Allen, Jackson and Concordia are among the beneficiaries. And business is booming since President Donald Trump decided to keep more immigrants behind bars while they await often lengthy decisions on whether they can stay here and seek citizenship.
Some of the sheriffs are touting the influx of ICE detainees as a win for parish governments, arguing that the federal cash from ICE can help pay for local law enforcement.
But the more time sheriffs spend chasing dollars for out-of-parish prisoners, the less time they have for handling the jobs they were elected to do.
And depending on the whims of immigration politics to fill local jails is precarious public policy, to say the least. Without a broad national consensus about how America should handle its immigrant influx at the southern border, the bureaucratic rules for detainees are especially subject to change.
The better option is for Louisiana to end its addiction to incarceration. Being America’s jailhouse isn’t a good brand for the state, which should be seeking a better future for itself.
The best way to address the challenge of filling huge parish jails is not to build them so big in the first place.