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Budget cuts would force release of 10,000 inmates, Corrections head says

BATON ROUGE — The head of the state Corrections Department said his agency would have to release 10,000 inmates starting July 1 if the Legislature does not raise more revenue by then.

Jimmy Le Blanc, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the agency could not weather the $75 million in cuts apportioned to it by the Legislature on Monday without sharply reducing the inmate population or furloughing some of its staff.

He said the department would not release violent offenders or inmates convicted of sex crimes. But sheriffs and officials in various parts of the state have already expressed concern about criminal-justice reforms in 2017 that have led to the accelerated release of thousands of nonviolent offenders since last November.

LeBlanc said the 10,000 additional inmates — nearly one third of the total state prisoners — would be released gradually over the next year and are now being housed in parish jails around the state. The budget passed by the Legislature cut about 25 percent of the money that the department uses to pay sheriffs to hold the inmates.

Under state law, the department must maintain the per-diem payment for each inmate at $24.39 a day. So sheriffs are likely to return many of the 18,000 state inmates now in parish jails to state prisons that are too crowded to hold them.

“What that means for us is total chaos,” LeBlanc said. “We don’t have the wherewithal to take 18,000 people into a system that is already 100 percent full.”

Under the Legislature’s budget bill, Correction officials said, the pool of money for housing inmates in parish jails would be reduced by $45.5 million, to $133.4 million from $175 million.

The department’s operating budget would be cut by $29.4 million to $540 million, even though LeBlanc said it is struggling from cuts stretching back to the Jindal administration.

“We’ve taken $200 million in cuts,” he said. “We’ve lost roughly 1,800, 1,900 positions. We’ve closed four state prisons. We’ve had 16 closed parish jails. We are down to the bone with budget cuts.”

He said the agency is having trouble hiring enough correction officers to ensure the safety of both inmates and its staff.

“We have a female officer with 170 offenders at Angola, right now, at night,” LeBlanc said. “We have nowhere to go here. It’s ridiculous. These agencies get tired of cut, cut, cut. There’s nowhere else to go.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he would call a third special session later this month to try again to raise additional revenue. An Edwards-backed plan to renew one-half of a penny of sales tax that expires July 1 would have largely funded the budget that the Legislature just passed, averting most of the cuts to Corrections and other state agencies.

That bill failed in the last hour of the special session Monday, falling six votes short of the 70 needed to pass any revenue raising measures. An attempt to vote on that bill again was blocked by House Republicans.

LeBlanc said he is confident that the half-cent renewal of the sales tax would have passed had Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, not filibustered in the final minutes of the session. He added that he hopes the legislators “come to their senses” and raise enough revenue in an expected third special session.

If no more money is raised, department would have to choose between releasing the inmates or furloughing much of its non-security staff, reducing those workers to three-day work weeks, LeBlanc said.

Any reductions in the administrative staff for the Office of Probations and Parole would inhibit the remaining officers’ ability to adequately supervise parolees.

The department would make $6 million of the reductions by closing regional re-entry and day reporting centers in five parishes — a key component of the 2017 effort to reduce the prison population and recidivism rates. The parishes are Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Caddo and East Baton Rouge.

LeBlanc said the agency cannot afford to reduce security staff of corrections, probation and parole officers.

He said 99 percent of the vacancies in his department are for corrections officers. He said he has had to pay overtime to a skeleton crew of underpaid and overworked officers to secure state facilities.

At a House Appropriations Committee meeting in March, Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy said correctional officer turnover is is expected to be 52 percent for the current fiscal year.

As part of the criminal justice reinvestment package passed in 2017, the money saved from the accelerated release of non-violent offenders must be returned to state prisons for improved programming to reduce recidivism. That money was protected from the latest budget cuts by a separate bill.

PHOTO: Corrections Secretary James M. LeBlanc tours a correctional center to see vocational programs that help offenders prepare for release back to the community. (Photo by Department of Corrections)

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