How Louisiana is shedding its label as America’s biggest jailer

Image: John Bel Edwards

A bipartisan group of lawmakers surround Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards as he signs 10 criminal justice bills into law during a ceremony in Baton Rouge, La. R.J. Rico / AP file

About 80 percent of them arrived from local parish jails, where the state Department of Corrections houses thousands of inmates as part of a years-old arrangement that avoids the construction of new prisons. Those local lockups don’t have nearly the same rehabilitative programs as state prisons, which made the re-entry effort even more challenging.

Most were only set free a few weeks or months early, but they became a target of critics, including many prosecutors, who warned they included habitual or violent criminals.

There has already been a highly publicized account of one newly released prisoner charged with armed robbery. Law enforcement officials have shared stories of others getting in trouble.

Statistically, it is unavoidable that some of them will commit new crimes. But the state hasn’t done all it should to prevent it, said Dennis Schrantz, director of the Center for Justice Innovation, which works with parishes to assist returning prisoners.

“This is a call to arms for folks who supported this politically to say, ‘Look, now that we support it, and the laws are changed, we need to step up and help these men and women because they’re out early and they’re not as prepared as they could have been,'” Schrantz said.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, whose parish became home for 145 newly freed prisoners on Nov. 1, said he objected to the early releases only because the men and women wouldn’t be prepared to succeed. He’s trying to come up with his own re-entry program. “It’s easy to say you want justice reform and get down to No. 2,” he said. “We’re not proud or happy about the number of people we have in prison. But if you’re going to have true justice reform, that means helping people so that they won’t re-offend.”

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Natalie LaBorde said there was little more the state could have done. The agency says there are plans to improve re-entry plans in the local lockups. “The reality is for us in Louisiana that we don’t have hundreds of millions to reinvest. So that has to come from the savings,” she said.

White considers himself lucky. Returning to New Orleans, where he once worked as a nurse, White, 32, was steered into part-time work at Catholic Charities. He is living in an apartment with his fiancee, has reconnected with his five young children, and is pursuing his dream of becoming a standup comic.

Image: Jerome White during a stand-up in New Orleans

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