SADOW: Giving Back The Savings From Criminal Justice Reform

Advocates of criminal justice changes in Louisiana pitched that it would save the state money. In fact, it may cost taxpayers more.

That well could happen if the Legislature passes HB 551 by state Rep. Katrina Jackson. The bill would increase the amount paid by the state to local jails for housing its prisoners from $24.49 to $28.49. As the state sends (as of the end of 2018) over half of its inmates to local lockups, this would jack up taxpayer costs around $97 million over the next five years. It passed its initial test, a House committee, with no votes against.

This contrasts with dollars saved from changes designed to reduced the prison population. Computed at around $13 million for the past fiscal year – the first under the changes – state officials think the amount will reach about $15 million for this fiscal year.

And these savings have come largely at the expense of local jailers, typically sheriffs. Since October, 2017, or the month before the changes kicked in, the number of convicts housed at state prisons fell 4.7 percent but declined 16 percent at local hoosegows. Further, sheriffs say the cost of incarceration continues to rise while the per diem has stayed the same for over a decade.

They have a case. The $4 increase represents about the same 16 percent rise in the consumer inflation rate since the last reimbursement hike in July, 2008.

But the real crux of the issue is this declining amount of prisoners for transfer eats into revenues of local jailers. As Louisiana places a highly disproportionate number of inmates in local facilities – no other state comes close – some sheriffs turned theirs into large-scale lockups to capture higher revenue possibilities. Even if in some cases revenues hardly exceeded expenditures, the economic spinoff effects, which could result in the employment of hundreds and injection of millions of dollars into the local economy, brought real political benefits to sheriffs.

By way of example, the Franklin Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2018 reported 74 percent of its revenues, or about $10 million, came from the state for inmate housing at the Franklin Parish Detention Center, which is one of the largest facilities in the state. For a nonpublic example, the even larger Richwood Correctional Center – with a capacity about half the size of the small Ouachita Parish town where it’s located – can handle well over 1,000 inmates with most coming from the state (run by a private company on behalf of the town, it doesn’t have to report financial data) and pays the town as its “sponsor” around $100,000 annually, or 8 percent of town revenues, not even counting the boost from sales and property taxes paid by facility employees.

With costs edging upwards and fewer revenues available, debt also factors in. Operators began building and expanding when prisoner counts began accelerating a quarter-century ago, peaking in 2012, accompanied by a desire by state policy-makers to save taxpayer dollars by shipping convicts to cheaper digs. At that point, local operators held five times the amount they did two decades earlier.

Yet with a decline since, punctuated by the 2017 changes, debt as a proportion of revenues continues to climb for those operators still owing on their past construction work. That amount changes little, unlike operating expenses that decline, putting more pressure on raising the fee.

So, despite a state budget defined more by tax increases than reducing the size of government during the term of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, lawmakers may feel compelled to cancel out one of the benefits Edwards promised with the criminal justice changes. With sheriffs as the only notable parish-wide elected official in many parishes, legislators may find smoother sailing for reelection by jacking up the reimbursement rate even if other state priorities go unfulfilled.

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