SADOW: Don’t Look For Much In The Way Of Savings From Criminal Justice Reform

Even if delayed, the day of reckoning will come for Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ “Justice Reinvestment Initiative.”

That may be the ultimate outcome from what HB 551 started this just-concluded session of the Legislature. That bill, by Democrat state Rep. Katrina Jackson that Edwards is all but certain to sign, bumps up the daily payment the state makes to local jail operators, typically sheriffs either directly or through a contractual arrangement.

Two years ago, Edwards cajoled the Legislature to provide bipartisan support into changing sentencing guidelines and lengths for a wide variety of crimes, with the effect of reducing the number of inmates imprisoned at any one time and thereby lowering direct costs. Seventy percent of the amount not spent as a result then would be plowed back into measures to reduce recidivism, with 80 percent of that going to the local facilities and community programs. With over half of all state prisoners housed at this level, the thinking was the program would let taxpayers get a bit of a break and money would go to activities discouraging recidivism.

The first eight months of the effort produced “savings” of $12.2 million, mainly at the expense of local jails whose populations shrank by a sixth. This had the purpose of driving up per prisoner costs at these, for local jailers’ fixed costs didn’t decrease, putting more pressure on them to accept inmates at the fixed cost of $24.39 a day.

Note that since 1991, this per diem had increased only 16 percent while inflation rose nearly 88 percent. Then, it wasn’t such a bargain for the state to house its prisoners locally, and less than a quarter were. The last increase occurred in 2008; since then prices have risen 16 percent.

Given these economic pressures, sheriffs increasingly indicated that they would start rejecting state overtures to house inmates, thus the introduction of HB 551. In its final form, the bill jacks up the reimbursement rate a buck for this next fiscal year and a buck more the year after, for a final increase of about 8 percent that will cost about $12 million more a year.

That would wipe out the present savings, although the forecast amount of these escalates from there. By 2027, a weighted average of 3,715 fewer inmates for all 365 days of the year at the $24.39 rate saves around $33 million annually, or $21 million to the good.

Except that you can’t expect sheriffs to stand pat on that. Even at the most recent 12-month inflation rate of 2 percent, by 2027 they would be 6 percent worse than they are starting Jul. 1. And the bill initially recognized that, which would have kicked on three more single dollar hikes in the three years after the two set to become law. Undoubtedly, this didn’t get past the Edwards Administration, who would have seen the savings go up in smoke and then some, so the Edwards-friendly Senate knocked off those raises.

That left Edwards able to make the campaign selling point about the savings while not solving the problem until after his attempt at reelection this fall. In the final analysis, the initiative had a main goal of beefing up local capacity to reduce costs by cutting recidivism rates, but that capacity exists only if the state spends more to shore it up. It means this at best won’t save money; it likely will cost more money within a few years.

Edwards can claim this, one of his two biggest policy implementations in office, decreases Louisiana’s prison population. He might be able to claim, but only long after he leaves office, that it reduced crime because of rehabilitation efforts connected to the initiative that will take years – if that happens – to make an impact. All that remains to be seen.

But what isn’t in doubt is this: Edwards cannot claim that his criminal justice reform package will save the state money in the long run.

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