Whatever else a state prison system knows about its inmates, you’d think it ought to be able, at a minimum, to tell you where they are, and for how long.
But a recent report entitled Management of Offender Data: Processes for Ensuring Accuracy, by the Louisiana legislature’s auditor will quickly dispel that expectation where the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections is concerned.
Released in late October, the report summarizes a performance audit examining how well the data in the state’s corrections data system reflected reality. It revealed the state often doesn’t know if it has accurate information on the whereabouts of its approximately 35,000 inmates, or has accurately calculated an inmate’s scheduled release date.
The auditor’s report was prompted in large part by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act, a package of changes to the state’s criminal sentencing laws. Taking effect Nov. 1, those changes allow earlier release for many inmates doing time for non-violent offenses. With the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation, Louisiana was looking for ways to reduce spending on corrections.
But when the state tried to estimate how many inmates would be released immediately when the new law took effect, the corrections department’s first estimate – 1,400 – proved to be widely inaccurate. When the department revised that figure upward to 1,900, it explained its earlier estimate was too low because it was made before its employees had completed individually examining each inmate’s records.
Adding to the legislature’s desire for a probe: its knowledge the corrections department’s data system – the Criminal and Justice Unified Network, or CAJUN – dates back to the 1970s and hasn’t been upgraded since 1991. A few years ago, the department spent $3.6 million for a replacement system, only to set it aside six weeks after its rollout. The audit report says the failure was due to inadequate planning and testing.
Overall, the auditor’s report charitably called CAJUN data “not always accurate,” adding the system lacks adequate data management procedures and policies, and noting earlier auditor reports also revealed unreliable data, including inaccurate release dates and even an inability to identify the correct locations for some inmates.
How can a state prison system not know where its inmates are? In large part, because over half of them (54 percent) are housed, at state expense, in local jails, and there’s no set timeframe for local jails to report frequent inter-jail transfers; on average, it takes 22 days for the central system to register them. In a random sample of 100 inmates, the audit found an incorrect location listed for 11, four of them violent offenders. It found an incorrect location reported for nearly six months for one inmate convicted of attempted murder. At least one error was found in CAJUN file entries for 19 percent of inmates in the sample.
Sentence calculations are also unreliable, since the process involves both automated and manual calculations, and lacks both standardized guidance on that procedure and protocols for verifying calculations or correcting mistakes. As a test, the auditor asked two different officials to calculate the release date for the same prisoner, and got answers differing by 186 days.
The state department said it’ll develop standardized procedures and increase internal monitoring, and has already started making changes.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.