As violent crime spikes nationwide, Louisiana law enforcement braces for the release of some 1,400 convicts from state and parish penitentiaries under new laws signed earlier this year.
Law enforcement officers and prosecutors both have their reservations about the impending release, the Acadiana Advocate reports. But James LeBlanc, secretary for the state Department of Corrections, suggests that such worries are unnecessary.
"When you say 1,400 everybody thinks ‘Wow'," LeBlanc said. "It's not as alarming as people might think. We have this under control."
As of 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available), Louisiana had the highest rate of incarceration for any state in the union — some 1,019 people per 100,000 adult population. A 2017 task force report found that Louisiana's prison population has increased "five-fold" since the 1970s, increasing at a rate thirty times faster than the state's resident population. One in three incarcerated Louisianians recidivates upon release.
That scale of incarceration runs up a huge bill for the taxpayer: state lawmakers appropriated $625 million for adult corrections for FY 2017. Corrections was the third largest item in the state budget, after education and healthcare.
In response, the state legislature acted in concert with Gov. John Bel Edwards (D.) earlier this year to pass a ten-bill criminal justice reform package. That package reduces mandatory minimums and sentences, and allows some inmates to be paroled earlier — after 35 percent of their term has been served, as opposed to the previous 40 percent standard. The Pew Charitable Trust projected that the reforms will cut prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million in spending over the next 10 years.
The reforms primarily target nonviolent criminals, but some Louisiana law enforcement are worried that violent offenders will be released as well. Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, noted one releasee who had been arrested 52 times, including for at least one manslaughter charge.
"Do you think he's rehabilitated with that kind of record? I don't think so," Prator said at a televised news conference. "We need to take our time and do like some of the other states and have some programs that work on rehabilitation before we just open the gates."
Also concerned is Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff's Association.
"There's never been a situation like this in the history of the state, so you've got a lot of unknowns," Ranatza told the Advocate. "Now that it has come, the best way to deal with it is meeting it head on."
Louisiana prosecutors, such as Louisiana District Attorneys' Association executive director Pete Adams, are also worried. He told the Advocate that prosecutors are taking a "wait and see" approach to see how LeBlanc's office handles the release.
"Our guys are going through the lists now. There are a few egregious people on the list and we're told they're not going to be released," Adams said.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III is also skeptical. He intends to carefully track the approximately 50 inmates set to be released in his jurisdiction.
"We're trying to identify those who, unfortunately, might become rearrested. We want to gather the data to see if this idea works, to see if it's a good idea or not," Moore said. "Everybody is new at this. They truly believe this will help. I hope that's the case but I'm really skeptical right now."
Louisiana's reform comes as the FBI releases data confirming that violent crime, especially murder, increased nationwide for the second consecutive year in 2016. This trend holds true for Louisiana, too: the violent crime rate rose 4.9 percent between 2015 and 2016. That includes a 12.3 percent increase in murders, an increase of between 4.5 and 6.3 percent in rape (depending on definition), and a 6.3 percent increase in aggravated assaults. Most property crimes in Louisiana have declined — a drop of 2.4 percent overall — although motor vehicle theft rates rose six percent.