Caddo sheriff blasts new laws allowing for release of nonviolent inmates

Published: Oct. 4, 2017 at 11:54 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2017 at 5:52 PM CDT
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CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator is not a fan of criminal justice reform laws about to go into effect next month.

Prator expressed his concerns about the Justice Reinvestment Act, which he says provides the early release of thousands of inmates statewide, noting that 192 felons will be released early in Caddo Parish under the new law in November, and that's just the first wave.

"There's ways and things that need to be reformed on the criminal justice system, but certainly we don't need to do what we're about to do," said Prator.

The Justice Reinvestment Act is made up of 10 bills passed by the Louisiana Legislature and signed by Governor John Bel Edwards in June, intended to change Louisiana's reputation as the most imprisoned state in the country. It goes into effect November 1.

"The Legislature and the Governor have made a huge mistake," Prator said. "Many of those scheduled to be released have not been properly vetted and are a danger to our safety and property. Seasoned multiple offenders are getting a break at our expense."

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the legislation into law in June in hopes of changing Louisiana's reputation as the most imprisoned state in the country.

Justice Reinvestment reform was designed by the state, according to the act's practitioners' guide, to reduce the prison population by 10-12% and save an estimated $262 million over the next 10 years.

Prator noted in a statement released after the news conference that "only one law enforcement officer served on the Justice Reinvestment Task Force."

Prator, a law officer for more than 44 years, said some reform may be in order but releasing thousands of offenders back into our communities isn't the answer.

"Simply put, the State of Louisiana is risking our safety for bragging rights and to save money," he said.

As an example, Prator said, the new laws provide for offenders to serve only 25 percent of their sentence and reduce penalties in many serious felonies and misdemeanors. They also make those convicted of drug offenses eligible for government assistance such as SNAP and provide for the removal of restitution for some offenders with "financial hardships."

Prator provided a list of 33 inmates that would be released on November 1. According to the list, some of the inmates did not qualify for release until 2025 and their charges range from DWI, Theft, Illegal Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon, Possession With Intent to Distribute Marijuana,Aggravated Flight, among others.

One of the inmates on the list was charged with 11 counts of Simple Burglary.

"I assure you we will continue our relentless pursuit of justice by arresting those who seek to harm or steal from the productive citizens of Caddo Parish," Prator said.

But Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Correction Secretary James Le Blanc told KSLA there were many inaccuracies in Sheriff Prator's assessment of the act.

"It's not like it's some opening of the gates and everybody's releasing here," he said. "This is 1,400 inmates that are going to 21 different districts."

"I have all the respect in the world for Sheriff Prator. I just don't know if he really knows what the numbers look like."

The act's practitioners' guide reads the releases only affect nonviolent and non-sex offenders who qualify for good time releases. After the first wave of 1,400 inmates, Le Blanc told KSLA it will taper down to around 30 a month.

State officials told KSLA they don't know where Sheriff Prator got the number of 192 inmates. They report this act only releases 35 inmates come November.

"We can put people that need to be in these beds in. More violent offenders and sex offenders and people that we need to be dealing with and providing the adequate resources and programs to while they're in prison," Le Blanc told KSLA.

State officials released this list of statements to KSLA:

Louisiana made history this year by passing comprehensive bipartisan criminal justice reform measures. Today, Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator held a press conference in which he gave inaccurate information about the reform legislation that merit clarification:

FALSE: Offenders whose sentences are seeing small reductions include multiple offenders of the most violent crimes.

FACT: The criminal justice reform legislation applies solely to non-violent offenders who qualify for good time release.

FALSE:  The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association opposed criminal justice reforms.

FACT:  The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association did not oppose the legislation that passed enacting these reforms. Additionally, the reforms were supported by the Louisiana District Attorney's Association.

FALSE:  There is no support for these reforms in Louisiana's judicial system.

FACT:  These reforms are based on the most in-depth study of the criminal justice system ever done in Louisiana's history.  They were done in comparison to penalties in other conservative southern states and the recommendations will move Louisiana in line with those states that have seen a reduction in their incarceration and recidivism rates.

FALSE:  These reforms will make our communities less safe.

FACT:  All evidence tells us our communities will be safer.  Louisiana's prison population and recidivism rate have not only stabilized but declined as a result of similar reforms made by the Louisiana Sentencing Commission These new laws expand upon those reforms that have already shown to reduce the incarceration and recidivism rates.  Additionally, offenders will have access to better rehabilitation, treatment and job training programs.  The money saved by these measures will be re-invested into communities statewide.

FALSE:  Offenders qualifying for minimal release are being released far earlier than they would have been before the legislature passed the reform bills.

FACT: The offenders we're talking about here would have served 40% of their sentence, but are now serving 35%. That ends up being only two months shaved off of the time they would have served while amounting to significant state savings.

FALSE:  The offenders qualifying for slightly shorter sentences are being released without proper vetting by the Department of Corrections and they have not received adequate rehabilitation programming.

FACT: The record of every single offender qualifying is being reviewed individually prior to release. Probation and parole officers are aware of all new parolees coming to their districts. Additionally, money saved through these reforms will be reinvested into rehabilitation programs that will reduce recidivism and spur increased savings in the future. Statewide polling shows us that Louisianans care most about preventing crime, not the length of a sentence.[1]

FALSE: Louisianans don't want these changes.

FACT:  Sheriff Prator is incorrect. Statewide polling shows that a majority of Louisianans support ending mandatory minimums,[2] safely reducing penalties for low-level drug offenses,[3] less prison time for non-violent offenders when paired with a greater use of alternatives[4] and reducing sentences and reinvesting the money saved in treatment and supervision programs.[5]

FALSE: Reform measures passed swing the "jail doors" wide open and leave them open.

FACT: On average, the Louisiana Department of Corrections releases 1,500 inmates per month.  In the very early stages of implementing the reform legislation, that number will increase to around 3,000 who qualify for good-time release, but level off to the normal rate over time.   The inmates scheduled for release are already receiving rehabilitation services and their probation and parole officers have been notified and are aware of the inmates who will be arriving in their districts.

FALSE: Sheriff Prator incorrectly stated that these changes were done "under the radar" and that legislators and sheriffs did not know what was in the bills.

FACT: That couldn't be further from the truth. A bipartisan task force comprised of legislators, sheriffs, district attorneys, victims' advocates, judges and others held regular, public meetings. The legislation was debated in open hearings in the legislature. The governor and other supporters spoke to the media about these efforts regularly. In fact, reforms were based on the most in-depth study of the criminal justice system ever done  in state history and comparison to penalties in other conservative southern states and the recommendation was to move la more in line with those state that have seen a reduction in recidivism rate. If Sheriff Prator had these questions or reservations as this process was unfolding over a year ago, he could have taken advantage of many opportunities to participate in the process.

[1] April 2017 statewide poll: Louisiana voters take a results-focused view about what counts when it comes to crime and punishment. A 68% majority (53% "strongly") side with the view that it is not the length of the sentence that is important, but rather whether the system ensures that offenders are less likely to commit another crime.

[2] April 2017 statewide poll: A supermajority of Louisiana voters support giving judges discretion over sentences, instead of imposing "mandatory minimums." By 76% to 20%, Louisiana voters say they support a proposal that "instead of mandatory minimums, judges have the flexibility to determine sentences based on the facts of each case."

[3] April 2017 statewide poll: Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Louisiana voters also support maintaining "long sentences for serious drug traffickers, while reducing penalties for other lower-level drug offenses."

[4] April 2017 statewide poll: A strong majority (63%) of Louisiana voters agree with the view that Louisiana should sentence fewer nonviolent offenders to prison and make greater use of more cost-effective ways of preventing crime like treatment and supervision instead.

[5] April 2017 statewide poll: An overwhelming 83% majority of Louisiana voters find acceptable a proposal "to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and use the money saved to pay for stronger probation and parole and more substance abuse and mental health treatment for offenders."

To voice your opinion about Justice Reinvestment, the sheriff is urging citizens should contact their legislators or the governor.

Copyright 2017 KSLA. All rights reserved.