It’s a landmark agreement for Louisiana, which locks up residents at a rate twice the national average, making it the country’s biggest jailer per capita. An unusual coalition of business and political leaders, religious groups and liberal activists has been working to end the state’s ignominious distinction with a package of bills that would shorten some prison sentences, prevent certain nonviolent offenders from going to prison and expand eligibility for parole.
The changes would come as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moves federal sentencing in the opposite direction, toward stricter penalties. Last week, he directed federal prosecutors to impose charges that carry the most severe sentences, a reversal of the Obama administration’s practice.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said in a speech last Friday. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
In Louisiana, district attorneys and sheriffs — typically the most powerful elected officials in their parishes — opposed early release for old convicted murderers and rapists.
“They’re going to risk public safety and we would go back on the promises to victims that were raped and the families of those who were killed,” said Bo Duhé, a district attorney in the state, before the deal with Edwards was reached.
Edwards argued that the sentencing changes would make Louisiana safer by saving money that the legislation shifts to programs that help prepare inmates to re-enter society and stay out of trouble. Other proponents point to studies showing that former inmates become less likely to commit crimes as they age, a phenomenon they call “criminal menopause.”
But Tuesday’s deal means Louisiana will remain one of two states that keep felons convicted of second-degree murder behind bars for life. It is likely that the state legislature will approve the bills related to nonviolent offenders before its regular session ends on June 8.
The state Senate Tuesday easily approved major components of the deal reached with law enforcement officials.
“This compromise package contains smart, aggressive reforms that will certainly improve public safety,” Edwards told reporters Tuesday.
The effort is part of a national campaign to reduce state prison populations, which soared after decades of “tough on crime” tactics. More than 30 states have adopted some form of “smart on crime” policies aimed at reducing the number of people behind bars, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The nationwide effort began when conservatives and liberals united in Texas a decade ago to make many of the changes now under consideration in Louisiana. Since then, Texas has closed three prisons, the recidivism rate has dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent and parole revocations have fallen by 50 percent, said Jerry Madden, a Republican who chaired the Texas House committee that helped push through the changes.
In Louisiana, proponents are armed with the findings of a blue-ribbon task force that reported that the state sends nonviolent offenders to prison at higher rates than other states and gives felons fewer opportunities for release.
Spearheading the effort to pass the changes is Jimmy LeBlanc, the state corrections secretary under the previous Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and now Edwards. For years, he adhered to the lock-’em-up school.
“What we’re doing is not working,” LeBlanc said. “The stats are there.”
The state imprisoned 816 people per 100,000 in 2014 compared with 700 per 100,000 in Oklahoma and 633 per 100,000 in Alabama, the states with the second- and third-highest incarceration rate, according to the latest available figures in the Louisiana task force report.
Propelling the high rates in Louisiana is the propensity to imprison people convicted of nonviolent offenses, principally drugs and theft. Louisiana sent nonviolent offenders to prison at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, even though the crime rates in the three states were nearly identical.
Half of those sent to prison in Louisiana have run afoul of probation rules, so one of the proposed reforms would expand the alternatives to revoking probation — for example, requiring probation violators to perform community service or face more drug tests.
The main motivation for conservatives is to save money in a budget-strapped state that has lost 25,000 jobs over the past two years because of the drop in oil prices.
As a whole, the changes would save an estimated $262 million over the next decade. The plan calls for investing 70 percent of the savings in programs that aim to reduce recidivism, like job skills training and drug abuse counseling. Currently, 1 in 3 people released from prison return within three years. Only about 1 in 10 inmates participate in the types of rehabilitation programs contemplated in the task force report.
“We cut higher education, we cut health care and we impose new fees,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, a Republican from suburban New Orleans who is the prime sponsor of the legislation. “I’m sick and tired of coming up here [to Baton Rouge] and facing a budget deficit and not looking at one of the biggest problems we have — the cost of incarcerating prisoners.”
Koch Industries, among the nation’s top conservative donors, and other business executives and lobbies in Louisiana have provided support for those pushing the changes, which makes it an easier political sell.
Offering parole to older inmates convicted of violent offenses — and other changes dropped from the final plan — would have lowered the projected imprisonment rate below Oklahoma’s and saved an additional $38 million over a decade.
About 4,300 of Louisiana’s 4,850 incarcerated lifers are housed at Angola. The site of the 1995 movie, “Dead Man Walking,” Angola is an 18,000-acre prison farm bounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. Inmates watched by gun-toting guards on horseback work the fields of cotton, hay and corn, earning up to 20 cents per hour.
In the hospital’s nursing units, cans of Ensure, oxygen tanks and pitchers of water sit on nightstands next to beds in a dormitory setting.
Angola has a hospice and two cemeteries. One has about 250 white crosses featuring the inmates’ names, dates of death and their Department of Corrections numbers. Two or three inmates die each month of natural causes and illnesses, said Gary Young, an assistant warden.
Advocating for the early release of old violent offenders, Louisianans for Prison Alternatives held a rally on the steps of the state capitol recently before the deal was reached. Among those attending was Clarence Batiste, whose brother Alton has spent 40 years at Angola for aggravated rape. Two days after the rally, Alton Batiste shuffled into a waiting room at Camp F at Angola, guided to his seat by an inmate nicknamed “Shorty” who is serving time for second-degree murder. Alton Batiste, 72, is blind and frail.
“What I did was wrong,” Batiste said of his crime. “I can admit that. But I don’t represent a threat to society anymore.”
Asked what he would do if he were released, Batiste said, “I’d like to go to church and do Bible study. It’s what I do here every day.”