Litter crew revived, but other work release programs remain dormant

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter

Criminal justice reform initiatives in Louisiana have reduced the number of non-violent offenders serving time in state and local prisons. Reform proponents cite alternatives such as probation, fines and community service to reduce costs while improving rehabilitation for non-violent offenders.
Reform advocates point toward the high cost to US taxpayers of maintaining a nationwide prison population of more than 1.9 million across state, federal and local facilities in 2021. They believe diverting first-time and non-violent offenders from incarceration reduces their exposure to the influence of hardened criminals. The total number of incarcerated individuals declined nearly 20% from its 2008 peak of more than 2.3 million, but the US continues to have the highest prison population in the world.

This article published in the March 24, 2022, print edition

Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative reduced the population incarcerated by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) since it became law in 2017, yet the shift in composition among inmate population has unintended consequences for local law enforcement and communities. Sheriff Stuart Wright explained the effect of the law. “It allowed a lot of the guys who were in jail serving time for non-violent offenses to be released early,” he said. “When those guys got released it depleted our source of inmate help in the community.”
Wright revealed the detention center is housing dramatically fewer inmates than it has in the past. “We used to house around 300 to 400 DOC inmates… We’re down to 90 now.” The reduced population means Wright’s office is spending less on confining prisoners, but the shift in prison population has created problems because of the types of inmates who remain incarcerated.
Inmates are offered more responsibilities, and freedom, based on their classification. Wright explained that only higher classified inmates qualify to leave the jail. “In order to go outside the prison, you can’t be a violent offender and you can’t be a sex offender for sure,” Wright began. “(Inmates) have to spend so much time in jail and prove that they’re not a threat. They’re not a problem.”
Wright gave examples of the type of services inmate crews once provided to the community. “We were getting some kind of service out of them, whether it was picking up litter, whether it was pothole crew, Kisatchie Forest crew down there, we used to build ramps for a lot of the elderly people that couldn’t afford it.” The reduced inmate population forced the detention center to scale back services to the community until there was nothing left. Now he anticipates bringing back only one service. “Until recently we only had two (inmates) that could leave the grounds at the DC. We’ve gotten four more reclassified, so we’re going to have six of them, and they’re going to start picking up litter.” He contrasted this with his prior experience. “Ten years ago you’d go out to the detention center… and you say ‘hey you 15 guys come get in this van we’re going to pick up trash. Well it doesn’t work like that anymore.”
With the difficulty of classifying the remaining DOC prisoners to work outside the detention center, Wright is reluctant to accept more. The state pays less per prisoner than it costs the detention center to accommodate them. “$Forty-five dollars. That’s the actual cost that we incur to house these guys. You know how much the state pays us? They pay us $26,” he said. “In the past we’ve been able to somewhat justify that because we did have enough inmates… we were getting some kind of service out of them.”
Wright explained the most valuable programs were work-releases, where participation was reserved for the highest classification of inmates. “We used to drive 15 or 20 guys down to Martco, and we’d drop them off and then at the end of the shift we’d go pick them up, but they didn’t have to have a guard there because they had proved that they were not going to be a threat to anybody,” he said. “They may work down there for several years before they get released, and if they’re good employees, as soon as they get released they’ve got a job waiting on them.”
The work-release program generated revenue for the Sheriff’s department, but Wright ended it because too few inmates qualified to cover the costs. “We were down to seven guys, and I had five people supervising,” he said. “We had to shut that down and that was a good money maker for the Sheriff’s department.” He revealed the deciding factor was outside his control. “We held on as long as we could, but we finally got an email from the Department of Corrections saying that we were not going to be getting any more DOC prisoners or any work-release prisoners, so they left me no choice.”
Without new DOC inmates to replace the ones who earn their release, the future of the recently revived litter crew is uncertain, leaving Wright to question the viability of housing state inmates. “If things continue and we’re getting to the point where all we’re doing is housing DOC prisoners, I don’t see the benefit of it,” he said.