Louisiana is now in second place in the nation’s incarceration sweepstakes, just behind Oklahoma by last count, and that has already translated into some savings for the state’s taxpayers: $12.2 million.
But if that is encouraging, it’s vital that the state continues to put the savings where intended by the bipartisan coalition that passed historic prison reform bills in the 2017 Legislature.
The savings ought to be directed to ensuring that when an inmate leaves the custody of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, he or she will have enough of an education, and preferably market-ready job skills, to reduce the chances that the offender will be coming right back.
Recidivism is a chronic problem in prison systems across the country, but it’s a particular challenge in Louisiana.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislators of both parties pushed the 2017 reform bills, and the good news is that fewer inmates soaking up state resources does free up dollars for rehabilitation.
The governor said an estimate from national experts, at the Pew Charitable Trust, was that Louisiana reforms could save about $6 million in the first year. The $12 million is thus good news, above projections. Under the law, at least 70 percent of the savings will be reinvested in the justice system.
State officials will spend the money on increasing programs for state inmates housed at local jails. This is vital, as so many state prisoners are in local facilities, and while some sheriffs do a commendable job with education or job training, the overall standard is quite low.
The state is also going to expand “regional re-entry centers” to try to get ex-offenders to integrate back into society and — this is critical — spending more money on probation and parole.
The latter is a perennial problem. With caseloads high and salaries low, Louisiana often trains younger probation officers for a few years before they move to other, higher-paying jurisdictions. And, of course, the more probation cases to supervise, the more chances are there that ex-offenders will turn into repeat offenders.
Other programs will include grants to community organizations, which are vital partners in dealing with the prison problem and victims’ services — including establishing a new Family Justice Center in Baton Rouge.
All this could, and probably should, have been funded by the state directly, a long time ago. But with money at the State Capitol in short supply, corrections and criminal justice have not been the priorities that they needed to be. And of the money received, large percentages go to lockups, to keep dangerous criminals off the street.
The justice reinvestment program is thus part of a larger and more comprehensive solution. As it is phased in, the role of churches and other congregations, as well as civic groups across the state, will be vital to supplement the official activities.
Above all, we think, the coalition of citizen groups — conservatives and liberals — who joined together to back the 2017 legislation should be vigilant about funding for the reforms staying in place, and that we do not backslide on this effort.
It is vital to both public safety and the taxpayers’ interests to get this initiative right.