A Year After Justice Reforms, Louisiana Jail Closing For Lack Of Inmates

Anders Hagstrom | Justice Reporter

A Louisiana county jail began the closing process due to a shortage of inmates Wednesday, nearly a year after the state passed a massive legislative package aimed at reducing its prison population.

Louisiana has long had the highest incarceration rate in the country, imprisoning 776 people per 100,000 in 2015, compared to the national average of 458, KLFY reported. The state legislature enacted a 10-bill package to reform its prison system in May 2017, resulting in the early release of more than 1,900 inmates in November. Now, the Vernon Correctional Facility’s population has dropped below its 350-inmate minimum and will close at the end of March.

Vernon Parish Sheriff John Craft is currently working with other nearby parishes to coordinate the transfer of the remaining 201 inmates.

“We have thoroughly investigated every possible avenue to avoid closing the facility,” Craft said Wednesday. “With the number of inmates that we currently house … it is no longer financially feasible to remain open.”

Of the 1,927 inmates released early, 429 were already slated to be released in November 2017 and almost half would have been released before 2018. More than 100 inmates had sentences stretching well into 2019 and 2020. State Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said the inmates left two months ahead of schedule on average.

State legislators hope the new policies will cut the prison population by 10 percent over the next decade, saving the state at least $78 million, though some estimate the savings will reach as much as $250 million. Louisiana pledged 70 percent of the decade’s savings toward re-entry courts and other anti-recidivism efforts.

The state’s flagship re-entry court is based at the state prison in Angola, La., and has successfully cut the recidivism rate of participants to just 17 percent, compared to the state rate of 43 percent. Inmates in the program can earn professional certificates in car repair, welding and other practical skills. They can also get a seminary degree through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which offers a four-year degree program for inmates.

Many of the pastors graduated from the seminary are serving life sentences and never leave the prison system, becoming a valuable resource for reforming the prison’s culture. According to Coalition for Public Safety President Steve Hawkins, who has supported the program, inmates that graduate and spread throughout the prison system are received more readily than outsiders.

“They spread through the prisons almost like a gang, except their message is obviously different,” Hawkins told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

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