A Justice Reinvestment Package, taking effect Nov. 1, will lower the number of state prisoners in detention centers across the state by releasing 1,500 inmates. This is the biggest and toughest problem the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office has faced since Sheriff Victor Jones was first elected in 2000. Louisiana has the largest number of incarcerated per capita and the state may be trying to balance its books, but it all rolls downhill. The Sheriff is concerned the savings to the state will only be passed on to the locals.
“We’re not opposed to what the state is trying to do,” said Jones. “We just have concerns. My concern is always with the victims and in my experience, when these guys get out they reoffend, adding another victim to their list.”
The inmates slated for release are violent, non-violent and drug-related offenders. Jones said it appears the images are being selected by what they were convicted of, not necessarily by their original charges. For example, one prisoner was charged with second degree murder. He pled to a lower charge of negligent homicide and was given a 5 year sentence.
“Many of these offenders plea to lesser charges, but sometimes it makes them no less violent,” said Jones.
Forty-one inmates will be released from the Natchitoches Parish Detention Center. Of these, only seven are residents of Natchitoches Parish. There are an estimated 16 Natchitoches Parish residents that will be released from other detention centers across the state. The state pays $24 for each of their inmates per day. If the DC were to have the full 25 percent of the state inmates (127) it’s supposed to house, that would amount to around $1.2 million annually.
There will be two more releases in December and January but Sheriff Jones said the exact number of prisoners is currently unknown. It is also unknown how these numbers will affect the detention center operations.
The Sheriff’s Office has subsidized the Detention Center since 2004 and the amount keeps rising. Last year it was up to $1.9 million. Looking at their reserves, if nothing changes, it’s unclear what operational state the DC will be able to maintain.
“We’ve been subsidizing 20 percent of the Parish costs from day one,” said Jones. “We have to supplement the jail. Just think what kind of burden it would put on the parish if it didn’t exist. It was set in a contract 20 years ago that the parish only pays for 80 of the average 120 parish prisoners (pre-trial inmates) at a lower rate of $15.50 per day per inmate. The DC is operating at a deficit. It was designed to stand alone on state and parish revenues and it can’t do that.”
The reduction in the prison population will not only affect the financial stability of the DC, but the rehabilitation programs its able to offer to inmates. Jails aren’t meant to warehouse prisoners for profit, but recently, DCs have shifted from rehabilitation to a warehouse model. This means they’ve started dropping rehabilitation programs such as GED and Work Release. Jones said they’re not sure how much longer they can keep their Work Release Program running, especially as the makeup of the prisoners at the DC shifts with the scheduled release next month. The eligible population will drop drastically, thus dropping the number of enrolled inmates. There’s only 13 in the program currently, whereas there’s been up to 40 enrolled in the past.
“The Work Release Program helps inmates gain some stability when they’re released,” said Jones. “Without somewhere to go or a place to work, they’re more likely to reoffend.”
Parish President Rick Nowlin and Sheriff Jones are now looking at possible solutions to this dilemma. From bringing in more federal prisoners (which pays $40 per inmate per day), to cutting costs at the DC, they’re looking at every possible option, but the solution remains elusive.
“This is a serious problem,” said Nowlin. “It’s gonna take cooperation from all of us to be a part of the solution.”