Louisiana lawmakers are unhappy with the way some criminal justice savings were used

Legislators say money should be spent on rehab programs, not buildings

By: - August 16, 2021 6:30 am

(Stock photo by Shutterstock)

A few high-ranking lawmakers are unhappy about the way Louisiana’s prison system spent the money it saved by shrinking its incarcerated population over the past few years.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections used savings from its prison population reduction to construct a new building at Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center in Cottonport. Lawmakers don’t believe that money should have been used to build a new prison facility.

“No one thought we would be building buildings with the money,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, at a legislative budget meeting Friday.

In 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature rewrote several of the state’s criminal justice laws with an eye toward reducing the state’s highest-in-the-country incarceration rate. They were successful. The total prison population dropped from 33,000 people in 2017 to 27,000 at the end of 2020.

But there was a trade off to approving more lenient criminal sentences in 2017. Most of the millions of dollars saved from the reduction of the prison population is supposed to go toward rehabilitation and reentry services that keep people from returning to prison. The idea is to use the money to provide support that will allow formerly incarcerated people to avoid getting locked up again. 

Magee said the prison savings should be going to programs that help incarcerated people and not the construction of new infrastructure on prison campuses.

Thomas Bickham, who handles financial issues for the prison system, told lawmakers Friday the new building at Raymond LaBorde prison will help keep people out of prison. It will be used to do intake and screenings on state prisoners who are expected to serve their sentences in local jails with sheriffs. By doing an assessment at the beginning of an incarcerated person’s sentence, prison officials and the sheriff will gain a better understanding of what rehabilitation the incarcerated person needs, Bickham said.

But Magee and other lawmakers said that using the money to put up buildings at prisons isn’t the same as funding programs that prevent reincarceration.

“We could say that anything you build at the prison is a reentry service under that kind of logic,” Magee said. “It’s not providing a service. It’s creating a building to provide a service.” 

In response, Bickham said the prison system would avoid this pot of funding for prison building projects moving forward.

But the prison system isn’t the only entity using funding from the prison population reduction to construct new facilities. The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement took $666,000 from the same pot of money in the last state budget cycle to build a family justice center in Baton Rouge. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.