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Prator right to note how reform can go wrong

Last week Pandora’s box opened, according to some northwest Louisiana crime-fighters, when Democrats Gov. John Bel Edwards took the next step in making good on a risky campaign promise.

On Wednesday, the state began to release prisoners as a result of new guidelines. Legislation passed earlier this year shortened sentences for some, an estimated 1,900 or a bit over 5 percent of the state’s total prison population. Designed to give a break to non-violent, non-habitual offenders who did not misbehave while in prison, this meant the vast majority would come from parish prisons housing state offenders. Given that the typical month sees 1,500 or so set free, the freeing acted as if an extra month’s worth appeared, distilled into a few days.

Skeptics including both sheriffs and district attorneys spoke warily of the event’s impact. Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator emerged as perhaps the biggest critic, maybe as Caddo saw the most convicts of any parish released early courtesy of the new law. He gained a lot of publicity for his negative remarks about it, including lamenting that the ones leaving early disproportionately could work on jail duties or on work release, saving or earning his office money.

That elicited reaction nationwide that stupidly conflated his lament that the change reduced the pool of prison labor with a desire to promote slavery. Unless a condition of sentence, nobody has to work and convicts who do receive some compensation. Unfortunately, lost in the hubbub was Prator’s point that the $24.39 per day per prisoner rate the state pays sheriffs makes for a thin margin, so they try to find other ways of offsetting expenses. That will become harder under the changes and actually could cause tumult if sheriffs refuse to take convicts and leave the state without enough beds, even with the reforms.

Additionally, Prator’s remarks about the potential for increase criminality also received short shrift. His argument, echoed by many sheriffs and district attorneys including Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington and Bossier-Webster District Attorney Schuyler Marvin, highlights two shortcomings of the new standards: some prisoners pled guilty to charges far less severe than originally booked and those convicted of those more serious crimes did not have their sentence lengths affected by the alterations, and the larger number of releases would strain the systems put into place to avoid recidivism, which runs around 17 percent in the first year for local facilities.

(Notably, Prator, Whittington, and Marvin all are Republicans. By contrast, Democrat James Stewart, Caddo’s district attorney, has tacitly endorsed the changed standards by noting prosecutors should have objected to these during the legislative process.)

The latter point indicates how the effort could backfire. Normally, if expecting more discharges per month, the state should spend more to beef up such systems – especially since so many will come from parish prisons that, especially rural areas, lack resources for state supervision and these jails by definition do not have programs to discourage recidivism. However, Louisiana has done nothing like that, wanting to house fewer prisoners in order to save money which then it will plow much of that into funding structures to prevent recidivism.

In other words, Edwards and reformers did it backwards, with the governor’s haste due to his campaign pledge to bring the state’s prison population down ten percent before reelection. At the time, his runoff opponent critiqued his concentrating on the cost aspect rather than the public safety implications. Back then, responding to that charge, Edwards said “I have never supported reducing our incarceration rate by releasing criminals from jail.” But the new set of laws precisely did that, through a definitional change of how long to lock up convicts.

That may come back to haunt reformers, for just one high-profile crime committed by someone let out early – made even more likely to happen as Louisiana’s Legislative Auditor discovered significant confusion in determining eligibility for early release that could give more dangerous criminals freedom prematurely – will spur justified criticism of the strategy. More adequate post-imprisonment supervision would temper such a possibility, but that won’t exist for at least a couple of years when the dollars not spent on incarceration begin to find their way to this use.

Prator may have taken a public relations beating from some quarters for his remarks, but he was right. Let’s hope tragic events don’t happen to make that clearer to his detractors.

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