June 1, 2015 12:07 AM

Mike Neustrom brought an academic, data-driven approach to the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office that has paid dividends in rehabilitating offenders and reducing recidivism. Replacing him this fall with the right candidate is critically important.

Sheriff Mike Neustrom
Photo by Robin May

Of all our countless elected officials, it’s the sheriff who wields the most power — as is the case in parishes and counties throughout this country. In Louisiana, sheriff’s offices have a long history of birthing unbeatable political dynasties capable of lasting decades. Not only do they oversee the largest paramilitary force in the community, sheriffs also hold the keys to the jail, and thereby, the lives of our friends, our family and our neighbors. The weight of responsibility is tremendous, and for voters, picking the right person to be our next sheriff will prove one the biggest decisions we’ll make this year — one that’ll have lasting ramifications on our community.

For Lafayette Parish, the lead-up to Oct. 24 will be centered on the last 15 years, and one big question: Who among the candidates is the most qualified to fill the very big shoes being vacated by Sheriff Mike Neustrom?

Neustrom has spent his four terms in office redefining how we approach criminal justice here, how we approach offenders, and ultimately, what we do with them. It’s figuring out the root of an offender’s problem and giving them the tools they need to overcome it, perhaps even a second chance at an education, employment and a salary.

That’s why Neustrom’s departure is such a big deal for the future of Lafayette Parish. It means everything he’s put in place — countless programs aimed at mental health, drug addiction, educational and social shortcomings and other roadblocks preventing people from becoming contributing members of society. All of it is now in jeopardy as the sheriff’s office remains at a crossroads of uncertainty until election day.

In recent months we’ve dug deep into the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office under Neustrom’s watch. And what we’ve discovered is a complex system — one that wouldn’t have been even remotely possible without a forward-thinking philosophy about crime and punishment, a businesslike approach and a belief in bringing on the most qualified people or the job.

Above all, we’ve learned that Neustrom not only broke odds by getting into office as an academic with little boots-on-theground experience as an officer of the law, but he also broke from tradition and is making our parish better in the process.

This story is too big and too important to be compressed into one article. So in the five months between now and election day, we’ll be rolling out a series of stories, online and in print, detailing everything that makes this year’s sheriff’s election so important. In print we’ll show you the ins and outs of the sheriff’s office and correctional center with a focus on the impetus behind all these progressives programs, and how they have shifted our philosophy from punishment to rehabilitation; we’ll look at the results of these programs through data and the firsthand experiences of several locals whose lives have undergone major changes as a result; we’ll dive into the mind of Sheriff Neustrom, revealing his background, his work ethic, his thoughts on law enforcement in the 21st century, his hopes for the future of the sheriff’s office and the legacy he hopes to impart when he leaves office next year. And then we’ll round it all out with an in-depth review of the candidates, and what an election victory for each of the four would mean for the future of the sheriff’s office, our criminal justice system and, above all, our community.

Lafayette Parish Correctional Center Downtown
Photo by Robin May

PART ONE: Deterrence versus Diversion

Let’s face it: Our criminal justice system is broken. It’s been that way for a long time.

Whether black, white, Hispanic, whoever, the great majority of inmates in Lafayette share several commonalities: They’re poor, they’re uneducated, unemployed, the mentally ill and the drug addicted. It’s just how it is: The poor, regardless of skin tone, are more negatively impacted by the criminal justice system than their counterparts on the other end of the economic spectrum.

According to data collected by the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, 80 percent of our inmate population is battling substance abuse; another 64 percent deal with mental illness. And for those unable to swallow the idea that our system is tipped against the poor, here’s another statistic: An astounding 71 percent of our inmate population was locked up over a misdemeanor. Another 500 are still waiting for prosecutors to decide whether they’ll even file charges, meaning they’re still presumed innocent in the eyes of the law; but, unable to post bail, they’re forced to spend the next three months locked up. That equals an average cost of $3,700 per inmate (more if they’re on medication). Of the thousands of inmates entering jails and prisons here and throughout this country, 95 percent will eventually be released.

This issue is one of the great debates of our time: Should we continue approaching crime with a get tough mentality and continue locking ’em up and throwing away the key; or is it time for a philosophically different approach?

For Lafayette Parish, that question has never been more important because for the last 15 years under the direction of Mike Neustrom, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office has set itself apart from the vast majority of other Louisiana law enforcement agencies. It’s Neustrom’s business-like approach, and how he raised the bar of professionalism by replacing old understandings of what works in criminal justice with evidence-based research and best practices. And it’s his experiment with replacing the traditional deterrence model — using harsh punishments to deter crime — with an alternative, newer method called diversion. He’s proving it works, revealing the traditional deterrence mindset to be an antiquated, ineffective approach to crime and punishment. Neustrom also replaced cronyism with a new tradition of hiring the best and the brightest. One example is LPSO’s finance director: a certified public accountant, which surprisingly isn’t the norm for most sheriffs’ offices in Louisiana. There’s also Rob Reardon, whom Neustrom brought on early in his first term as director of the LPCC.

Reardon’s arrival in Lafayette in 2001 came after a decade-long project with the Geneva County Sheriff’s Office in which he oversaw the construction of a massive, nine-story correctional complex in Downtown Minneapolis. This sheriff, says Reardon of Neustrom, just seemed like the most progressive, “the best to work for.” Along with an extensive background in corrections, Reardon also came with a master’s degree in management, big ideas, and like Neustrom, a progressive approach to criminal justice and corrections.

And so we turned to Reardon in recent months for help grasping all the complexities that make up the LPCC and its ever-evolving diversionary programming. Over a series of interviews, on-site tours of the jail, correctional campus, and recently opened Willow Street Complex (where, among other services, families can now stay more connected to inmates through the Public Video Visitation Center), as well as up-close interviews with the people whose lives have been changed because of the diversion programs — a story we’ll save for part two of this series — we’ve learned that what’s going on here in Lafayette Parish is the wave of the future, and that its continuation, its very survival, hinges on who we elect to take Neustrom’s place.

“It’s not a big secret that there’s this big pendulum swing going on now nationwide against police officers, that police officers are bad people ... we’re not bad people,” says Reardon during our first interview from his Downtown office in mid-April. “There’s a small component that’s bad, but unfortunately, in most instances, it’s people making poor decisions. They’re placed in terrible situations, and bad outcomes happen. That’s why one big thing we need to do as a system is get out in front of providing a higher quality of training on how to communicate with one another.”

He’s talking about the quickly changing landscape of law enforcement, seen in the last year with the mass protests popping up throughout the country in response to the use of force by police. But this spirit of protest belongs to a greater movement in the making for years now, one that’s centered on philosophy and a debate over how law enforcement’s evolution plays out in the new century. It’s seen in recent years with the end of strategies like the NYPD’s “broken windows” policing — more popularly known as “stop and frisk” — a crime-fighting concept of enforcing all ordinance violations, even for the most minor offenses. It was seen again with Prop 47 in California through which voters effectively ended the state’s harsh sentencing structures and ineffective deterrence laws like “three strikes and you’re out.”

Reardon knows all about the problems with laws like “three strikes” — it’s on the books here, too, and is one reason Louisiana’s still designated the “incarceration capital of the world.” The continued survival of the deterrence model is another. Our state imprisons more of its citizens per capita than anywhere else in the world, with one in 55 Louisianans incarcerated; for every 100,000, that’s 846 behind bars. “What they were doing with three strikes was essentially pushing individuals from the state prison level down to the county jails; it’s a system we’ve been doing in Louisiana for years,” says Reardon, explaining the reason for all the packed parish jailhouses. “So when you’re pushing these long-term sentenced inmates into the county or parish facilities, you need to have something for them to do, and that creates a problem.”

It’s also costly. About nine years ago, when LPSO’s diversion programs were still in their infancy, the steady stream of new inmates into an already-crowded LPCC made for an unmanageable situation. The solution at the time: shipping inmates out to other parishes — about 100 per day — costing the sheriff’s office both time and money. This is still a huge problem in East Baton Rouge Parish — a nearly $7 million a year problem, according to Reardon, who’s recently been serving as a consultant to the sheriff’s office there as it searches for a fix. Reardon would know. He’s been instrumental in all the fixes enacted throughout Neustrom’s administration to overcome overcrowding.

Instead of treating inmates like animals and putting as many away as possible, LPCC’s diversion programs are based on the premise of managing the inmate population by getting to know who these inmates are as individuals, why they’ve been locked up and then determining whether they should be diverted into an alternative setting or remain in jail. And Reardon will be the first to tell you, some people do belong behind bars; for the vast majority, however, that’s just not so.

“For a lot of our inmates, not all, but a lot, we have something for them to do,” he explains. “What we’re ultimately doing is building skill sets into these individuals that they don’t have.”

The process of determining who qualifies for diversion comes at the very beginning of an offender’s incarceration during the intake process as each new arrival undergoes a pre-assessment by the Sheriff’s Tracking Offender Program. STOP consists of a team of five deputies who last year conducted pre-assessments on 5,305 inmates but only interviewed 1,074, qualifying 921 for one of the various diversion programs. Of the 2014 group selected for diversion, 661 participants had been incarcerated over a misdemeanor.

For many, a misdemeanor means a pesky court appearance and paying a fine. For the poor, it’s more like a nightmare — one that holds a high risk for getting entangled in the system and locked in jail over something as simple as being ticketed for an expired inspection tag.

It’s an all-too-common scenario, and one Reardon sees repeatedly, most recently involving a middle-aged mother who ended up in jail over a routine traffic stop in Rayne. With her sole source of income coming from SSI Disability, an unexpected speeding ticket — with a fine equal to her entire monthly check — meant the difference between paying the bills and feeding four kids and a husband for the month or going to jail and riding it out for the next 45-60 days. This lady, recalls Reardon, chose the latter. “She was one of these unfortunate situations,” he says. “When I talked to her she was saying that for her to bail out it was going to take all of her monthly money. So that’s all for speeding. It’s one of the problems of the system, that if you’re poor or of less means and you become entangled in the criminal justice system, it’s very difficult to get untangled.”

Stories like this are a big reason — along with mental illness and addiction — our jail was built for 338 inmates but never holds less than 900; misdemeanors alone account for 71 percent of the population.

Rob Reardon, LPSO’s director of corrections, in the walkway of the Community Corrections Campus (formerly J. Wallace James Elementary School); the Day Reporting Program pictured on the plaque — since renamed the Alternative Sentencing Program — offers offenders a real chance for successful social integration through education, skills training, industry certification and employment assistance.
Photo by Robin May

This is a serious problem. The idea of moving the jail from Downtown into a bigger facility gets tossed from time to time; it’s not the answer. In fact, it’s this type of thinking that’s at the root of the overcrowding issue. Building a newer, bigger jail — or even adding on to the one Downtown — will result in one outcome: the incarceration of more people until over-crowding makes its inevitable return. And that’s why it was so concerning to hear such detailed, thought-out responses to the potential jail relocation question by several sheriff’s candidates at a political forum held in late May. Asked their thoughts on the jail’s relocation, three of the four candidates responded with detailed ideas all in favor of relocation. On the surface this may seem plausible; in reality, just the fact this idea is getting tossed around is scary. It’s not the solution to overcrowding; it’s a step toward future overcrowding.

“It’s why we have the STOP program,” responds Reardon, who is not a proponent of the jail’s relocation on grounds of practicality alone — not to mention the demand it would place on funding that could otherwise be used for the expansion of the diversion programs.

“We’ve had this program in some shape or form for the last 10 years,” says Reardon. “It’s all based on the individual need. It’s not cookie-cutter. Some have mental health issues, for some it’s substance abuse, some have trouble getting a job, some have anger issues, some need a GED. Based on every individual person’s needs, we put them in the appropriate program. In those 10 years since we started releasing so many back into the community and placing them in structured programs instead, there’s some who say it’s just a ‘get out of jail free card.’ It’s not.”

The screening and interview process used by STOP draws from two researchbased models: Texas Christian University’s substance abuse screening and interview model and the Kentucky Risk Needs Assessment. (In Kentucky — which does not have a bail bonding industry — use of a screening process called Risk Needs Assessment has resulted in less crime and less recidivism statewide, all while putting about 80 percent of all inmates through a diversion program and back on the streets.)

Reardon makes it clear that LPCC’s slate of programs are difficult, with intensive class and counseling schedules, weekly drug tests, as well as a rigid set of consequences for non-compliance, namely going back to jail. The programs are also flexible, designed so that if an offender enrolled in the Alternative Sentencing Program were to fail a drug screening, the system would allow for his re-diversion into one of LPCC’s drug-treatment programs. And yes, these diversion programs are extremely beneficial to those who make it through to the end, as program graduates are proven to re-enter the free world educated and employed, finally equipped with the social skills needed to prevent an eventual return to incarceration. In financial terms, this means decreased recidivism, a lessburdened criminal justice system and a manageable jail population.

According to data for the last 10 years, the diversion programming has saved a total of 451,207 bed days — at a per-day savings of $24.39 per diem for parish inmates and $24.39 for state Department of Corrections inmates — for total savings of about $10 million in the last 10 years.

And for diversion’s impact on crime, we point to a 2008 study showing a 35 percent recidivism rate among all offenders who participate in one of LPCC’s diversion programs. That’s an impressive feat when compared to the 65 percent national recidivism rate (along with preliminary results from a follow-up study crediting LPCC’s diversion with an additional 15 percent drop to the 20 percent range).

In Reardon’s eyes, the incarceration issue essentially boils down to two opposing scenarios — one based on punishment as a means of deterrence, the other diversion: “The deterrence mindset is basically saying we’ll give longer sentences, and that’ll deter people from robbing or doing drugs. So we’re locking them up and leaving them bored, staring at a concrete wall. So what do they do? They make friends, and they learn to become better criminals in the process. In reality, when people are committing crimes, they’re not thinking about getting caught. You and I would go, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to jail, so I’m not going to knock over that Circle K, or I’m not going to take a bat and beat up the person down the street because they said ‘X’ to my significant other. But because the decision-making skills that these people for whatever reason haven’t constructed, they just don’t have it; our job as law enforcement is to assist them in building that structure.”

For voters this fall, it should all boil down to approach, and how a new philosophy ushered in under Neustrom is now curing the ills haunting our criminal justice system for the last 150 years. Between now and Election Day, voters must ask questions: Should we be locking people away on trivialities? Is it right to allow those unable to afford bail to sit in jail upwards of three months because of a misdemeanor, or a drug possession, or for being homeless or mentally ill? Or is it time to fully embrace diversion and finally put to rest these ineffective yet somehow still prevalent “get tough” philosophies like deterrence?

“It’s based on a belief these people will magically be changed by sitting and looking at a cell for 24 hours a day,” says Reardon. “That’s not going to happen. ... It’s also creating anger in that individual for the system, so when they are released they’re a bubbling pit of anger. And remember: 95 percent of them are getting out.”

They’ll be getting out early, too, as Louisiana DOC officials are constantly dealing with dueling pressures to keep costs down while also dealing with “get tough” deterrence tactics and the resulting swell of inmates under their watch and care. It’s an unsustainable model that seems to only result in overcrowding. But for Louisiana, instead of embracing diversion as an alternative approach, we remain largely stuck in a deterrence mode — a reality the state DOC has largely dealt with through the issuance of good time credits, meaning an offender sentenced to 20 years will end up doing eight, while someone serving eight years will be getting out in four, and so on. On the parish level, most sheriffs’ offices — as seen in East Baton Rouge Parish — are dealing with the issue by transporting excess inmates to jails across parish lines.

But as Reardon and Neustrom see it, overcrowding’s not the problem; it’s the symptom. That’s why we don’t need a bigger jail. Instead, the problem is the approach, the mindset that tough laws and arrest-happy policing is the solution to crime. It’s not. What tradition sees as the remedy has been the problem all along. The real fi x is simple: allocate more resources toward diversion.

So why has LPSO embraced this idea while the majority of agencies in this state are still holding on to the deterrence approach? (Just look south of here toward Iberia Parish for how the deterrence model is playing out on the correctional center there.)

Rob Reardon, left, and Sheriff Mike Neustrom outside the LPCC’s Public Video Visitation Center on Willow Street
Photo by Robin May

“From a system perspective, no, we’re not the norm,” Reardon explains. “We’re the only jail in Louisiana that’s accredited (by four respected entities) ... and the only sheriff’s office in the state with a licensed drug-treatment program. So why do we do it so extensively? Well, there is a cost to it, but I think we do it because of Sheriff Neustrom, because he wants his agency to be benchmarked against what other agencies are doing across the country. One of the things I think he’s done really well is that he brings people into the organization with a certain expertise. Like the example of the CPA for our finance guy. Or myself: I’ve been in corrections going on 27 years. But typically people in my position are placed in there from patrol. They may have been a good patrol officer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand the complexities of this system because it’s hugely complex.”

And that gives way to Reardon’s biggest fear — that the wrong candidate will be elected, that real qualifications will be but a distant after-thought. And Reardon points to Neustrom, his education and background to explain why LPSO has set itself apart from other agencies. It’s why selecting the right person to succeed Neustrom is so critical to our future: Because running LPSO effectively is no easy task.

“That’s my concern for the system, is if we end up getting someone who doesn’t understand the complexity. If we don’t go out and ask lots of questions of these candidates on what they know about the system, my fear is we’ll end up selecting somebody based off of popularity, and that will be one of the worst scenarios because it doesn’t mean anything. To re-emphasize the reason we’re here today, and why people around the state are talking about us and want to aspire to [be] us as a law enforcement agency, it all has to do with Sheriff Neustrom and his education, and his more global thinking and diversity as an individual. Because again, this is a business. This isn’t just, ‘Hey, we’re a bunch of do-gooders over here.’ We don’t need a law enforcement expert; we need an administrator. Somebody that can actually run a business, and see about issues as they relate to how police officers are being perceived nationwide; that’s going to be a huge issue in the next several years. It’s going to be something done very well by some agencies, and terribly [by others]. So whoever that next sheriff is — we all have our hope — he’s going to have to set the tone for the agency. If you get someone in there who isn’t articulate and can’t actually give it some voice, and give it some direction, give it leadership, that’s going to be a hard price. Because our next sheriff can either build on what Neustrom’s done, or he can disassemble it all in a day.”