The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that the comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms Louisiana passed in 2017 have safely reduced the state’s correctional population.
Assessing a report released by the state earlier this year, Pew finds early indications of significant progress, including reductions in the prison and community supervision populations, higher-than-projected cost savings, and drops in supervision revocations.
Louisiana Is No Longer the Incarceration Capital of the U.S.
Louisiana reduced its prison population even more than projected since the Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s enactment. The state’s total prison population fell 9%, from 35,682 in 2016 to 32,397 at the end of 2018.
Before the reforms, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was nearly double the national average. Two years later, it no longer has the nation’s highest imprisonment rate.
The state also showed progress towards its goal of reducing imprisonment for less serious or nonviolent offenses. Louisiana used to send people to prison for nonviolent offenses at up to three times the rate of other Southern states with similar crime rates. From 2016 to 2018, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses fell 26% and the number incarcerated for property offenses declined by 22%.
Based on research showing that longer sentences for nonviolent offenses do not improve public safety, the Justice Reinvestment reforms shortened sentences for nonviolent offenses. From 2016 to 2018, sentence length decreased 17% for drug offenses and 8% for property offenses, and the share of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses dropped from 56 to 51%. And the state reported an especially dramatic drop (74%) in the use of habitual offender enhancements, which impose increased penalties based on previous convictions.
Most of Louisiana’s annual prison admissions before 2017 came from parole and probation violations. Research traced these high failure rates to long supervision terms that contributed to large caseloads for probation and parole officers.
The reforms reduced the state’s community supervision population by nearly 12%, from 71,154 in 2016 to 62,935 in 2018. As a result, the average caseload size for probation and parole officers fell from 149 in 2016 to 123 in 2018. Prison admissions for supervision revocations fell 5% in the same period, contributing to a 2% reduction in total prison admissions between 2016 and 2018.
Cost Savings Outpaced Expectations
The state announced in July that Louisiana had saved more than $12 million in the first year after the Justice Reinvestment Reforms were implemented—more than double the projected amount.
The state reinvested $8.54 million in victims’ services, community incentive grants, and strategic investments for the Department of Corrections. A total of 10 programs statewide received $3.4 million in community incentive grants, including the Louisiana Parole Project, which was awarded just over $110,000 to provide mentoring, housing, and employment support for people returning to the community after serving at least 20 years in prison.
In fiscal year 2019, Pew reports the reforms saved the state $17.8 million. By statute, 70% ($12.46 million) will be reinvested in state corrections initiatives and local programs and 30% ($5.34 million) will go back into the state general fund.
Provisions of the reform law that change how court-imposed financial obligations are assessed and collected have not yet been implemented, and complete rearrest data is not yet available, but Pew concludes that “[t]hese early signs of success are encouraging.”