Business of Politics

A Silent Shanking

by Jeremy Alford

As Louisiana’s adult inmate population outstrips national trends and conflicts continue in the youth prison system, the cost of incarceration is poised to be the legislative sleeper issue of 2009.
Louisiana’s entire process for locking up convicted criminals, from lawmaking and incarceration to probation and parole, is finally showing noticeable and difficult-to-ignore signs of stress from supporting what is now the nation’s largest adult prison population. There are more than 37,000 men and women behind bars in the Bayou State, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Justice Department. To put it into perspective, Louisiana’s prison population is roughly the same size as the town of Marrero, which today boasts 12,400 homes and 9,300 families. But that comparison isn’t exactly evenhanded, since the overall 37,000-inmate tally doesn’t include juvenile prisoners or others serving municipal time in a minimum-security jail or workhouse.

A more effective contrast can be obtained using dollar signs. Most estimates for incarceration weigh in at as much as $20,000 annually per prisoner. It’s a possibly liberal number, quite literally, as it’s the high-end quoted by the American Civil Liberties Union and other inmate-rights organizations. But a bit of simple math with the number brings us to an estimated yearly price tag of $740 million — and it’s in the right neighborhood. The forecasted budget for corrections services in Louisiana in the 2008-2009 fiscal year (running from June 30 to July 1) is $490 million, which is a $90 million increase from the 2006-2007 budget. Meanwhile, youth services are being recommended for a $156 million budget, up from $116 million in 06-07.

However, these 08-09 forecasts were first presented in February and a great deal has changed since then. Last week, lawmakers discovered that Louisiana is facing a $341 million deficit for the current fiscal year and cuts are needed immediately. Moreover, the state is anticipating another larger shortfall of $2 billion for the 08-09 fiscal year. Gov. Bobby Jindal says he plans on cracking the whip and across-the-board cuts will be implemented — even for Louisiana’s booming prison industry. It’ll make for interesting political theater as lawmakers struggle to balance these economic hurdles against the ongoing problems in the youth prison system and their own needs to never, ever be soft on crime, which usually results in more people being sent to the slammer and then skyrocketing incarceration costs.

For starters, prison officials are still planning to seek increases to address their challenges. Earlier this month, Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, spread it on thick for lawmakers. He says 111 new probation and parole officers are needed at a cost of $8 million. His argument is that the state’s current 554 officers are overloaded and handling 39 more offenders per worker than the southern regional average. That alone, though, won’t be enough. LeBlanc says he also needs more beds, additional oversight for monitoring sex offenders and cash for emergency operations, like generator purchases.

Standing next in line are members of the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission, who want a few bucks and maybe even more power. Created in 2003, the commission has only limited authority and takes a backseat to the governor’s office when it comes to implementing real reforms. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who chairs the commission, says he’s looking for money to create a stronger administrative structure for the commission. Other members want the Legislature to give the commission more teeth. In return, the commission would have no shortage of issues to weigh in on, like the storied Jetson Youth Center in Baker and the future of youth prisons in Louisiana.

The Baker youth prison, in particular, has garnered a nefarious reputation in recent years, plagued by accreditation problems, deaths and outbreaks of violence. There have likewise been inmate escapes and accusations of sexual contact involving guards. In response, Sen. Donald Cravins Jr., an Opelousas Democrat, successfully pushed legislation earlier this year to shutter Jetson in 2009 and transfer its inmates to smaller facilities better equipped to handle each youthful violator’s special needs. They were to be moved to smaller facilities in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport, which each have 48 or fewer beds, as outlined in another recent reform law.

Before the Jetson legislation passed, the Baker facility housed more than 220 male offenders, most between the ages of 14 and 20. Since the legislation was adopted, the population has been carved down to 66 youth inmates, but that’s doesn’t mean the doors are shutting. Lawmakers were told this month that the facility will remain open under a new name — the Capital Area Center for Youth — as a “therapeutic” center. It’s one of the three new youth facilities that are being built by the state to meet the guidelines of the guiding reform law. Advocates and lawmakers say more reforms or better oversight is needed, though, which is an argument that might be heard for strengthening the commission next year.

It’s going to be a soul-searching session for lawmakers, who will also be faced with the usual dozen or so bills creating new laws and maximum sentences. The highest profile among them might be a new law proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that would force violent sex offenders to be confined in a special treatment center after their regular prison terms end. It will likely be a perfect example of how lawmakers don’t like to appear as soft on crime. So-called civil commitment programs have experienced problems in the 19 or so other states they have been adopted in, but it’s unlikely that lawmakers will want to grill Jindal’s handlers. After all, who wants to look like they’re going easy on perverts and child molesters?

While the constitutionality of civil commitment programs has been challenged repeatedly, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld various state laws because its justices didn’t interpret the program as a second punishment, but rather a new treatment possibility. According to a 2007 report by The New York Times, roughly 2,700 pedophiles, rapists and other sexual offenders are being held indefinitely nationwide in similar programs. But “few ever make… progress” and only 250 have been judged safe and released since 1990. Additionally, placing convicts in such a hospital setting costs taxpayers on average four times more money than just keeping them in prison.

It all amounts to a perplexing public safety and budgetary issue. But when it comes down to Louisiana’s booming prison population and the tax dollars it’s siphoning from education, health care, coastal restoration and economic development, there’s a great deal of blame to go around. Fingers can also be wagged at judges, prosecutors, district attorneys and others. But with a $2 billion shortfall around the corner and another $341 million deficit upon us now, it’ll be squarely on the shoulders of the Legislature and governor to make sense next year of incarcerating the population of Marrero at an increasingly uncomfortable cost to the rest of the state.