The move is a direct result of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act, a package of 10 measures enacted by the state legislature with support from both parties and signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) on June 15. The legislation aims to cut the state’s inmate count by as much as 10 percent over the next decade. With more than double the ordinary number of releases per month (about 1,500) made Nov. 1, and at least 30 to 50 additional inmates to be released each month until next February, the state estimates it may shed its status as the state with the highest incarceration rate (with over 800 of every 100,000 state residents serving time) as early as the end of next year.
The total inmates getting early release under the new law was significantly higher than the 1,400 the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections had estimated a few months ago. The agency explained the discrepancy by saying it had to review by hand each prisoner’s records to determine if the new relief applied. In doing so, it found an additional 500 inmates who qualified but had not been reviewed at the time of its earlier estimate in late September.
The new law retroactively makes inmates sentenced for non-violent crimes eligible for good behavior release after they have served 35 percent of their sentences, a reduction from the 40 percent required under previous law. For many affected inmates, release will come only days or a few weeks earlier than previously scheduled, although the average difference turns out to be about eight weeks, state corrections officials say.
About 82 percent of those who got early release on Nov. 1 were held in parish jails, not state prisons. More than any other state, Louisiana places a large portion of its state prisoners in local jails. Louisiana spends about $700 million annually to run its state prisons and pays to house state prisoners in local jails. The sentence-reduction measure is estimated to reduce state corrections spending by $262 million over the next 10 years. Another part of the 10-law package requires 70 percent of those savings, or about $184 million, to be used for job training and other programs to prepare inmates being released for re-entering society.
Backers of the criminal law revisions say they are modeled on reform programs that have worked in other southern states, including Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. Opponents, including some sheriffs and local prosecutors, warned the expanded “good time” law could release some frequent offenders. One sheriff complained early release would raise costs for his jail, because it would make fewer inmates available to cook meals, wash cars and provide other free services.
Beyond the relief slated for non-violent inmates, other provisions could bring early release for over 200 people with murder convictions, most convicted as juveniles. That’s mainly due to U.S. Supreme Court rulings saying Louisiana cannot refuse parole consideration to inmates convicted of murder as juveniles. Such cases will be reviewed more extensively by parole boards, and district attorneys and victims’ families will be able to raise objections.
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.