SADOW: Criminal Justice Reform Is Looking Like A Money-Loser

Contrary to what the state’s public may think, the day of reckoning for Louisiana’s criminal justice policy changes of four years ago is drawing nigh: sold as a way to reduce costs without damaging public safety, those costs sooner rather than later actually look to increase.

These changes, such as reducing sentences, different sentencing, and increased eligibility for release on a periodic (for work release) or permanent basis, adherents such as main sponsor Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards claimed would save money that could be used to pad the state’s budget but mainly for “reinvestment” into strategies that supposedly would reduce the crime rate. While the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic postponed last year’s report on the changes, until then the state estimated cost reductions of $30 million.

However, these early optimistic monetary returns distracted from a looming reality. Unlike all but one other state, Louisiana houses a significant portion of state prisoners in local jails, historically hovering around the 50 percent level. With this a persistent feature of the state’s criminal justice system, parish sheriffs got into the business in a big way, often ambitiously expanding capacity.

As the changes disproportionately shortened sentences or convicted at the lesser end of the punishment continuum, that portion of the inmate population which comprises the group eligible to serve sentences in local jails significantly contracted in amount, while sheriffs’ overhead expenses remained largely the same. As a result, they began to take in more federal prisoners and illegal immigrant detainees to make up for the revenue shortfall.

These don’t seem tenable long-term solutions. Democrat Pres. Joe Biden has signaled he wants to move away from housing federal prisoners in private facilities, which some sheriffs utilize through cooperative endeavor agreements. And even as his order didn’t apply to detained illegal aliens, his return to “catch-and-release” policies mean even with a huge surge at the border likely fewer detainees will manifest.

With both trends on net likely reducing the numbers of prisoners the federal government will send sheriffs’ way, perhaps this played into the thinking behind HB 641 by Republican Speaker Clay Schexnayder that would increase the state’s daily payment per state prisoner housed locally to $30.39 (which won’t include work release). This builds on a dollar increase for a year ago and another over that for last fiscal year.

As this will cost over $23 million a year, that officially wipes out and then some any “savings” the changes induced (and doesn’t include the $11.5 million or so caused by the two-dollar hike). Although inflation may have made a smaller increase inevitable, the drop of state prisoners held locally of 27 percent since the 2017 changes through 2020 undoubtedly triggered much of the six-dollar hike (the inmate population housed by the state barely declined).

And, as the final insult, initial indicators don’t support that the “reinvestment” has done anything to reduce crime. Rates tracked about the same in 2019 as in 2017 (and in terms of recidivism rates, not enough data over time has been collected to determine the impact).

Soon, it’ll be official: the 2017 changes ended up costing more with no real reduction as yet in crime in Louisiana. It looks like Louisianans may have purchased a pig in a poke on this policy, and should put the brakes on any other changes pending different future data that might change the current negative balance on the policy’s benefits and costs.

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