Louisiana Continues Efforts to Protect Public Safety and Reform Justice System

2 years after enacting legislation, state sees declining prison population and other benefits

Louisiana Continues Efforts to Protect Public Safety and Reform Justice System

Two years ago, Louisiana adopted landmark criminal justice reforms that have safely reduced the state’s correctional population. The bipartisan policy changes received widespread support, earning endorsements from a diverse coalition that included the state district attorneys association, business and faith leaders, and community advocates.

The report released by the state this summer, an annual look at various performance measures, shows early indications of significant progress. The state’s total prison and community supervision populations continue to decline and the initial savings and reinvestment into community-based programs and victims’ services has exceeded projections. In addition, supervision revocations have gradually dropped.

In 2020, the state is expected to release analyses of trends in re-arrest and recidivism. To draw any conclusions on these data, analysts need at least one full year of observation for a cohort affected by the reform. The majority of policy changes took effect between August and November 2017, but the first full calendar year for which the rearrest data can be assessed will be 2019.

Along with the report released in July, the state announced savings attributed to the reforms of $17.8 million for fiscal year 2019. By statute, 70 percent—$12.46 million—will be reinvested in state corrections initiatives and local programs that aim to reduce reoffending or that support crime victims; the remaining 30 percent—$5.34 million—will be returned to the state general fund. (See Figure 1).

These reinvestments follow the $12.2 million in savings from the first year after reforms began to be implemented. The state reinvested $8.54 million of that amount in victims’ services, community incentive grants, and strategic investments for the Department of Corrections. Among the $1.25 million in victims’ services disbursals, $750,000 went to establishing what is known as a Family Justice Center in Baton Rouge to offer resources, services, and a safe environment to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Statewide, a total of 10 programs received $3.4 million in community incentive grants. They include the Louisiana Parole Project, which was awarded just over $110,000 to provide mentorship, housing, and employment support for people returning to the community after serving at least 20 years in prison.

Strengthening the continuum of community-based supervision and services has helped Louisiana outperform projected reductions in its prison population, which stood at 32,397 at year-end 2018. That was down 9 percent from 35,682 in 2016, before enactment of the reforms.

In keeping with the reforms’ goals of steering people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison, the state experienced a 26 percent decrease in the number incarcerated for drug offenses from 2016 to 2018, and a 22 percent decline in the number incarcerated for property offenses in the same period.

Reforms that shortened sentence ranges for nonviolent offenses also contributed to the population drop. Sentence length decreased 17 percent for drug offenses and 8 percent for property offenses. In keeping with this shift, the composition of Louisiana’s prison population changed too: the share of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses dropped 5 percent from 2016 to 2018, from 56 to 51 percent.

Meanwhile, the community supervision population declined nearly 12 percent from a baseline 2016 figure of 71,154, to 62,935 in the last quarter of 2018. Along with this drop, the average caseload size for probation and parole officers fell from 149 in 2016 to 123 in 2018. Reducing caseload sizes allows probation and parole officers to devote more time to effectively addressing the needs of each individual they supervise.

The annual report also notes that prison admissions for supervision revocations—historically one of Louisiana’s major drivers of prison population—decreased 5 percent from 2016 to 2018, contributing to a 2 percent reduction in total prison admissions in the same period.  

One component of Louisiana’s 2017 reform package that has yet to realize any outcomes is the changes to how court-imposed financial obligations are assessed and collected. Because of concerns about how state courts would maintain operational funding levels if a major source of their budget is constrained, lawmakers now have twice delayed implementation of these policies. A study group created in 2019 is considering how to best implement the provisions of the reform law relating to court-imposed financial obligations without major disruption to the courts.

These early signs of success are encouraging, but the state must remain vigilant in tracking data, analyzing performance measures, reinvesting funds, and ensuring policies and programs are implemented according to plan. Such attention to detail will help ensure that the reforms achieve the goals of protecting public safety, ensuring accountability, and reducing correctional populations.  

Jake Horowitz is a director and Elizabeth Compa is principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

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