NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - In the next 10 days, the number of prisoners being released from Louisiana jails could nearly double. That's because reforms designed to lower a notoriously high incarceration rate kick in Nov. 1.
On per capita basis, Louisiana has more prisoners than any other state, and a growing chorus says that's not acceptable.
"I have never believed that people in Louisiana are innately more sinister or more criminal than people elsewhere," Gov. John Bel Edwards said at Loyola Law School Friday.
State lawmakers took a hard look at changing the state's prison culture, and five months ago they passed a 10-bill package that will result in hundreds of inmates getting early releases, including inmates who received 20-year sentences for third-offense marijuana possession. That sentence is now reduced to zero to two years.
On average, Louisiana releases 1,500 prisoners each month, but beginning Nov. 1, 1,400 extra non-violent prisoners will be let go.
"The good-time law previously required they serve 45 percent of their sentence, now it's 35 percent because that's what other conservative states have done," said Edwards.
Another aspect of this reform package is a requirement that former inmates pay child support. No longer is failure to do so a ticket back into jail.
"They will eliminate mandatory prison terms for drugs and property crimes. We're gonna let judges be judges again," said Edwards.
The reduced prison population is expected to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, with 70 percent of that money required to go into programs designed to help former inmates stay out of jail
"Projections are we will save $240 million over 10 years, reinvesting 180 million into community-based alternatives, re-entry programs, job training and programs inside the jail to give people opportunities when they come out," said Rep. Walt Leger III (D-N.O.)
But some fear that lawmakers may try and use that money elsewhere.
"That will be the key. We have to be disciplined...because we have this fiscal cliff where $1 billion in revenue falls off the books," said Edwards.
When it comes to hard-fought reforms, Edwards said he won't let money needed for prisoner rehab to be spent elsewhere.
Edwards said Louisiana didn't reinvent the wheel with its prison reform program but merely copied programs that have worked in other Southern states such as Texas and Georgia.