Kennedy’s Letter To Trump On Prison Reform Is A Brutal Takedown Of The LDOC…

…as it provides a rather exhaustive catalog of all the corruption and incompetence and flat-out abuse of taxpayer money conducted by the Louisiana Department of Corrections, the agency implementing the state’s prison reform package.

As we noted earlier this week, to the expressed consternation of some on the conservative side of the prison reform advocates, the effect of the prison reforms so far is not politically palatable. The district attorneys across the state are touting numbers they say show some 22 percent of the inmates released under the prison reform package passed in 2017 – with the first of those releases coming in November of last year – have already been rearrested for other crimes. And two of the state’s more outspoken elected Republicans – Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry – have joined them in squawking about the recidivism problem.

The complaint here isn’t so much that what passed the legislature in 2017 was a bad idea. Louisiana probably did overincarcerate, and might still be overincarcerating. But a truly successful criminal justice reform plan would be very aggressive in moving prisoners into a re-entry program which gives them marketable skills with which they could emerge as productive members of society and not be swept back into the criminal underclass upon their release. This was done in Texas and South Carolina, and it’s what the Right On Crime crowd wants for Louisiana. They’re correct in that advocacy.

The problem is that Louisiana doesn’t have a Rick Perry or Nikki Haley in charge, and as such the implementation of that package has had a significant number of high-profile glitches. Earlier this week we touched on the cases of career criminals like Smokey White, Ricko Canaz Ball, Daniel Alston and Reginald Capers, and Alton Brooks – who upon their release immediately took up criminality and were shortly rearrested, in some cases multiple times. Not to mention the cases of Paul Jackson and Richard McLendon, who not long after their release took it upon themselves to kill someone.

We didn’t mention perhaps the most headscratching case of them all, that being Neilson Rizzuto – who in a fit of drunken revelry plowed his car into a crowd at the 2017 Endymion parade in New Orleans, injuring 32. Rizzuto was sentenced for 11 counts of vehicular negligent injury, and received a five-year sentence of which he will have ended up serving 17 months due to the prison reforms. That seems like an awfully short jail sentence for injuring 32 people, some quite severely; it’s a miracle Rizzuto didn’t kill anyone. The argument could be made that what he did wasn’t a “violent” crime, seeing as though while his behavior was shockingly irresponsible it didn’t constitute an intentional or malicious attempt to hurt anyone. Even still, politically a case like Rizzuto’s carries a heavy burden on the reformers.

And Kennedy’s take is that burden should rest on the Louisiana Department of Corrections, which he says isn’t up to the task of responsibly managing the vetting of who should be released under the reforms.

He expresses that in opportunistic fashion this morning, sending a letter to President Trump following news that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is set to visit the White House to talk about criminal justice reform. In so doing Kennedy is thinking about pulling a Neilson Rizzuto stunt of his own on Edwards’ DC parade – but with a point. Namely, Kennedy wants the world to know who’s in charge of deciding who to let out of jail and who not to.

And he offers an awfully damning portrayal of LDOC in the bargain. From the letter…

  • Longtime Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola warden Burl Cain resigned in 2016 amid a cloud of controversy.  Mr. Cain hired a company to build a recycling plant at Dixon Correctional Institute for the state and then signed a personal contract to broker similar deals for the company.  Mr. Cain also is accused of going into business with the family and friends of prison inmates.  The Corrections Department later decided that arrangement was fine – partly because it wasn’t sexual – but said it might forbid similar arrangements in the future.  An audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office found that Mr. Cain’s family stayed for free and ate for free in homes owned by the state.
  • Burl Cain’s son, former Avoyelles Correctional Center warden Nate Cain, was indicted in 2017 on 18 fraud charges for inappropriately charging $152,000 to a state credit card.  He also faces an obstruction of justice charge.  According to an arrest warrant, Nate Cain and his wife, Tonia, also a prison Corrections Department employee, ordered prison employees to buy things for their personal use with state credit cards.  Investigators later seized a camera, Bose headphones, TVs, clothing and an airsoft gun wrapped as a Christmas gift from their home.  The state also spent nearly $80,000 building an almost 4,000-square-foot home for the Cains before construction halted amid questions about why state bid laws had been circumvented.
  • Burl Cain’s daughter-in-law, former Avoyelles Correctional Center business manager Tonia Bandy, pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.  Mrs. Cain is accused of trying to cover up more than $30,000 in missing concession sale funds by ordering the shredding of documents.
  • Burl Cain’s one-time subordinate, former Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola supervisor Sidney Davis, was arrested last year for using prison employees’ club funds to buy alcohol, La-Z-Boy recliners, a sound machine and other questionable items, including nasal spray.  He told investigators that the purchases were an accident.
  • Another one-time subordinate of Mr. Burl Cain, Shirley Whittington, pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud for stealing $115,000 from a fund that was supposed to be used to create recreational opportunities for prison employees and their families who live on prison grounds.  She used the money to shop online.  The theft went on for years.
  • A Louisiana newspaper described Governor Edwards’ Corrections Departments’ staff chart as a genealogical exercise because so many relatives of Mr. Burl Cain and Governor Edwards’ Corrections Department Secretary James “Jimmy” LeBlanc have been on the department’s payroll.
  • Gary Shotwell was deputy warden when Secretary LeBlanc was warden at Dixon Correctional Institute.  Mr. Shotwell and the husband of LeBlanc’s niece later got slices of $6.3 million in work on a building renovation the Corrections Department Secretary should have put out for bid but didn’t after Mr. LeBlanc became Governor Edwards’ Correction Department secretary.  The niece’s husband got the design portion of the project.  Mr. Shotwell got the construction portion.
  • Under Mr. LeBlanc’s leadership as secretary, inmates convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses were allowed to repeatedly leave prison to play music at nursing homes and interact with children at a park.  The trips stopped once the media reported on them.
  • A Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report found that the Corrections Department often loses track of inmates within the prison system.  The Legislative Auditor found that 11% of the inmates reviewed by the auditor could not be found at the prison listed in their files.  For example, the agency thought an inmate in prison on an attempted murder conviction was at an Evangeline Parish jail for months when he was actually at another facility some distance away.
  • The same Legislative Auditor’s report found that Governor Edwards’ Corrections Department consistently struggles to calculate accurate release dates for the inmates.
  • Governor Edwards’ Corrections Department spent $3.6 million on an updated inmate tracking system.  The department used the new system for six weeks and then abandoned it.
  • Until recently, Col. Mike Edmonson oversaw the State Police arm of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.  Col. Edmonson allegedly abused his position to avoid paying numerous expenses.  He got free housing and food and got state employees or inmates to walk his dog, maintain his son’s car and drive his wife around the state, including to concerts.  Hotel rooms were provided to State Troopers during Mardi Gras season in New Orleans while they helped with law enforcement.  Col. Edmonson allowed friends to stay in some of those rooms instead.  At the same time, he tried to sneak through an unconstitutional, $300,000 retirement boost for himself and a colleague.
  • Under Col. Edmonson’s leadership, State Troopers took a road trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon at Louisiana taxpayer expense. They charged the taxpayers overtime for their sightseeing.  Col. Edmonson later called the side trip irresponsible.  However, phone records – that he tried to erase – showed that he traded friendly text messages with the troopers during their excursion.
  • Three Louisiana State Troopers have been accused of claiming a massive amount of overtime they did not work, as a result of an undercover investigation by a New Orleans television station.  The television series, titled “State of Unrest,” included footage of troopers allegedly abusing a traffic law enforcement program by writing a full shift’s worth of tickets in a relatively short period of time.  One trooper was paid $240,000 in 2016, $147,000 of which was overtime.

The pro-reform folks on the Republican side are furious at Kennedy and Landry for making political hay about the recidivism. As we noted earlier this week, though, and perhaps especially in Kennedy’s case, they have an escape hatch being provided by the two – namely, that it’s about the package’s implementation rather than its passage. John Bel Edwards, and in particular LDOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, are not Rick Perry and Nikki Haley, or anything close.

LeBlanc, by the way, unloaded on both the district attorneys and Kennedy Monday for his criticisms of the implementation in a scathing press statement…

Senator Kennedy clearly does not understand how offenders’ time and release are calculated, or the laws that govern the incarceration and release of convicted individuals. Good time release is a mechanism that has long been a part of the Louisiana criminal code. The district attorneys state that some should have been released but that others should have been screened/not released. The statute governing good-time release for those convicted of non-violent offenses is very clear regarding the allocation of good-time credit – which is not discretionary on the part of the Department of Corrections (DOC). This statute has long been in existence prior to the Justice Reinvestment (JRI) reforms.

Secondly, the real issue is a front end problem related to accurately convicting and sentencing people. The DAs should not plead people down to lesser/non-violent offenses in order to get a high conviction rate. And if they do chose this method, they cannot complain when the law governing the conviction imposes a shorter sentence than that of the original charge. The two November 1, 2017, Act 280 releases accused of murder, have extensive prior arrest records which include several prior suspended sentences where neither did any prison time for these specific offenses. The DAs could have at least prosecuted these individuals at a point in time which could have possibly prevented further crimes. Once actually convicted, both of these offenders spent all of their prison time in local level facilities, and never went through a state reception center, where they could have benefited from state programming. They are the poster children for why JRI is so important to Louisiana. Approximately 80 – 90 percent of all discharges, including the Act 280, November 1, 2017, releases who have been rearrested, were discharged from local jails. This is another issued that our Justice Reinvestment (JRI) strategy is targeting beginning with the five Louisiana- Prisoner Reentry Initiative parishes which generate approximately 50% of the prison population (Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, St. Tammany, Caddo, and Orleans) – which will require that all offenders coming from these parishes go through a state reception center in order to determine appropriate housing placement that includes programming and transitional services.

These reforms have worked in other states, and we have seen them work on a smaller scale. Since 2013, our population and recidivism rates have declined due to previous reforms. The new reforms expand on proven policies, but major change will not happen overnight. We must stay the course.

August 1st marks the one year anniversary of when many of Louisiana’s historic criminal justice reforms became law. Last year, a bi-partisan Louisiana Legislature passed a package of 10 criminal justice reform bills. Many of those laws went into effect a year ago last week, and are already having a positive impact on the state.

As part of the reforms, in the past year the state has saved $12.2 million, doubling original projections. Over the next decade, the state is expected to save $262 million, and reinvest 70 percent of the savings into programs and policies to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime. The state has also shed its claim as the incarceration capital of the world this year. Louisiana’s state prison population is at 32,743 this week, the lowest it has been in more than 20 years, and down from its peak of 40,568 in 2012. These reforms are projected to further reduce the state’s prison population by an additional 12 percent over the next decade.

Community supervision is at approximately 65,000 clients, down from 72,000, the lowest it has been in more than a decade. The reduction is credited to the reforms which include earned compliance credits and maximum supervision of three years for non-violent, non-sex offenses which allow Probation and Parole agents to focus on the highest risk, highest need offenders, providing better public safety and rehabilitation. As a part of the criminal justice reforms, the Department placed five community resource officers in the five parishes sending the most offenders to prison. These officers will locate and develop local resources to help offenders successfully transition from prison back to the community. In addition, the state is opening two additional day reporting centers in Monroe and Thibodaux to serve as a one stop shop to help offenders reenter society. A combination of these reforms and reinvestment into programs and services, staff training, and engagement of community partners is expected over the next decade to further reduce the community supervision population by at least 12 percent.

The first year of reforms are detailed in a report the Department of Public Safety and Corrections released earlier this summer, and can be viewed by clicking here.

The reduction in prison population and the initial savings can primarily be contributed to the implementation of Act 280, which became effective on November 1, 2017. Act 280 modifies the good time rate for offenders serving time for non-violent and non-sex crimes. As a result of its initial implementation, 1,952 offenders released on the effective date of the bill, November 1, 2017. Many of these individuals released only 30-90 days earlier than they would have under the previous law, and received pre-release programming in an effort to help them successfully transition back to the community.

As of this week, 120 of those released on November 1, 2017 are back in custody as a result of a revocation of supervision based on a violation of the conditions of supervision or new criminal activity. This translates to 6.1 percent recidivism after three quarters of a year. Approximately 70 percent or these individuals violated their parole or committed new crimes after their original release date, and would have been out anyway. Louisiana’s average for recidivism within a full year of release is 15.56 percent. The Department calculates recidivism based on a complete year’s worth of data, and won’t have a complete reflection until early next year. There are an additional 112 offenders currently being detained, many for felony crimes, and their cases are awaiting adjudication. While these cases would not be included in recidivism numbers until they are revoked or convicted of the crimes for which they are charged, if they were all to be convicted, the recidivism for the first three quarters of the year would be 11.8 percent, and tracking with the state’s usual one year recidivism average. With the additional dollars for reinvestment, we can anticipate that those who release through the increased availability of transition programs and services will certainly return at a much lower rate.

In the meantime, the state has issued Request For Proposals (RFP) for the community incentive program under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). It is open to qualified community organizations interested in enhancing and expanding re-entry services and providing community supports with the goal of expanding prison alternatives and reducing prison admissions and recidivism.

The reforms have proven to work in other similar states, and Louisiana expects to see the same successful results.

There’s a way to square this circle, as we’ve been given to understand – which is that DOC’s six percent number would be prisoners remanded to DOC. Those would be, for example, prisoners who have been found guilty of new crimes or who violated the terms of their release. Prisoners who were rearrested and held in local jails or who bailed out wouldn’t be in DOC custody, and that’s how the local DA’s would have them included in the records while DOC would not. Whether that’s correct or not we can’t quite say, but it’s how the discrepancy was described to us and it would seem to make sense.

And yes, you could argue that just because one of the reform alumni would be arrested that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of a new crime. That presumption of innocence certainly holds in his individual case, but as a matter of statistical analysis it’s probably valid to assume there are a good number more recidivist prisoners who haven’t been caught yet than there are innocents who’ve been re-arrested, and perhaps it’s a more accurate assumption that the 22 percent figure the DA’s are touting, rather than the 6 percent DOC claims, is the real number.

Either way, what’s clear is this issue will be front and center in the 2019 elections. The reform crowd, particularly on the Republican side, is going to need to navigate to shore on the issue before the polls open next fall. Kennedy and Landry are giving them a map to do so, but it’s not clear yet whether they’ll accept it.

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