There was a lot of rejoicing when Gov. John Bel Edwards' task force on reducing Louisiana's prison population approved its final set of recommendations for policy and law changes Thursday (March 16). Edwards received a standing ovation from the panel and the audience at its meeting for his remarks, which built on one of his 2015 campaign promises to reduce the incarceration rate and save money in the process.
But most of the task force and spectators are already invested in, or at least receptive to, overhauling Louisiana's sentencing laws and prison policies. The task force had representatives from a number of backgrounds -- a sheriff, prosecutor, judge, religious leader, the prisons chief -- but almost all shared one thing in common: They've been interested in reducing Louisiana's incarceration rate for years.
The challenge will be persuading skeptics to go along with the proposals during the Legislature's regular session starting April 10. State lawmakers must change their views on criminal justice issues and cast some tough votes to make the plan work.
For example, the task force calls for the Legislature to expand opportunities and eligibility for parole to many more inmates. But lawmakers have done the exact opposite in the past decade; from 2006 to 2015, they passed 55 new restrictions on parole for non-violent criminals and 25 new restrictions on parole for violent criminals, according to the task force report.
Prosecutors, a powerful group with the ear of many legislators, have been the most vocal so far about their opposition to parts of the task force report. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association said it was told the changes would focus on non-violent criminals, and that it was blindsided when the task force decided to push for recommendations affecting people convicted of murder, rape and other serious charges.
"It turned from an effort to not unnecessarily incarcerate people, into giving every opportunity to people to get out of jail," said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, in an interview.
The task force worked nine months on the report. Edwards called it Louisiana's "most comprehensive study of sentencing and corrections practices ever done." It will form the basis of the governor's legislative package on sentencing reform.
Louisiana has an incarceration rate that is twice the national average and has been the highest in the world since 2005. The state is on track to spend more than $625 million on corrections during the fiscal year that ends June 30. It devotes more money annually to only two other areas: education and health care. Since his gubernatorial campaign, Edwards has promised to bring down the prison population and the costs associated with it.
Over the next 10 years, the task force said, its recommendations would save the state at least $151 million. They would provide another $154 million for incarceration prevention programs, inmate reentry services and compensation for sheriffs who lose revenue they now receive for housing state prisoners.
"If we can't afford it and it's not working, let's do something better," Edwards said before the task force approved its report. "It is not true that being tough on crime is always being smart on crime."
Edwards said he supported measures that would put fewer non-violent offenders such as drug offenders in prison. He also said he backs alternatives for some people who were convicted of violent crimes and are serving decades-long sentences.
The bulk of the task force recommendations concern non-violent offenses or people who already are on parole or probation. They include making raising the threshold for prison time for property crimes and lower-level drug offenses, as well as shortening the required time for probation supervision.
But five recommendations, about violent and habitual offenders, are said to be non-starters for district attorneys. Among those are a proposal that would make more offenders -- including those convicted of second-degree murder -- eligible for parole after 30 years in prison and when they reach the age of 50.
Another proposal would limit prosecutors' authority to seek stiffer penalties for habitual offenders. It would allow tougher punishment only if the offender's previous crime was serious and not, for example, a minor drug offense. Changes to the habitual offender law are of great interest to prosecutors because the law is often used as leverage to secure a guilty plea instead of going to trial.
Though not as vocal as the district attorneys yet, sheriffs might also have concerns with the task force's report. Louisiana puts thousands of convicts in state prisons. If fewer people are convicted and imprisoned for state offenses, particularly non-violent crimes, some sheriffs could lose a significant amount of money.
Louisiana is the only state in the country where such a large portion of the state prison population, about 50 percent, is housed in local jails. The state pays sheriffs are paid $24.39 per day to house and supervise each prisoner. Sheriffs also may garnish 64 percent of wages for offenders' who sleep in their jails and make money through work release programs.
Under the task force recommendations, sheriffs who house state inmates would lose out in two ways:
>> They could be paid as little as $10.25 per day to house a state inmate if they don't have reentry programs
>> They would be allowed to take only 50 percent or $350 per week, whichever is less, out of an offenders' work release paycheck.
The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association did not return a phone call for comment on the task force's report.
Edwards, whose brother is the Tangipahoa Parish sheriff, said he will make an effort to compensate some sheriffs who rely on state inmates for income. Some of the $151 million that is supposed to be "reinvested" over the next 10 years into preventing incarceration would be used to help cover the cut to these sheriffs' funding.
The governor said the sheriffs started housing state prisoners only because the state was passing tougher laws that increased the prison population but was not building large enough state prisons for them. He said the state owes it to sheriffs to ensure they don't suffer inordinately from any policy changes. That could win tentative support from sheriffs for the proposals.
Still, Louisiana has tried to reduce its prison population previously, with little success. There was somewhat of a push to lower the incarceration rate in 2012, under former Gov. Bobby Jindal. But those efforts were derailed, in part because of opposition from the district attorneys and sheriffs.
A game changer this time could be the support of big business, which is influential in the Capitol, as well as the conservative religious lobby. Both groups have said they are interested in backing a sentencing overhaul this year.
Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, has said business interests could give some nervous lawmakers' comfort in casting tough votes. "If the business community stays behind the criminal justice reform stuff and gives what I call 'cover' to some of these legislators, then I think we can get something done," Martiny said.
Yet business interests will have a lot going on during the spring legislative session, and Martiny expressed concern that they might get distracted by other debates. In addition to a sentencing overhaul, the governor and lawmakers are supposed to rework Louisiana's tax structure, including several business tax exemptions. If that consumes the business community's energy, diverting attention from criminal justice issues, it could doom prison and sentencing reform, Martiny said.
"It's a high priority," said Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, of reducing the state's incarceration rate. But he added: "It kind of depends on what else is going to be coming at us."
Correction: This article originally said the geriatric parole recommendation would make inmates eligible parole after serving 30 years of their sentence or when they reached the age of 50. It would actually make inmates eligible for parole after serving 30 years and when they reached the age of 50.