Prisoners of the Budget

As Louisiana's inmate population outstrips national trends and troubles continue in the youth prison system, expect the cost of incarceration to be a major issue in 2009.



Louisiana's process for locking up convicted criminals, from lawmaking and incarceration to probation and parole, is showing difficult-to-ignore signs of stress from supporting what is now the nation's largest adult prison population. More than 37,000 men and women are behind bars in the Bayou State, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Justice Department.

Louisiana's prison population is roughly the same size as the city of Marrero, which today boasts 12,400 homes and 9,300 families. But even that comparison falls short, because the state's official 37,000-inmate tally doesn't include juvenile prisoners or scofflaws serving municipal time in minimum-security jails and/or workhouses.  

A more dramatic comparison: dollar signs. It's been estimated that it costs Louisiana up to $20,000 a year per prisoner to keep criminals locked up. That may be a liberal estimate — literally — as it's the number quoted by the American Civil Liberties Union and other inmate-rights organizations. But a bit of math brings us to an estimated yearly price tag of $740 million, which is in the right fiscal neighborhood. The forecasted budget for all corrections services in Louisiana in the 2008-2009 fiscal year (running from June 30 to next July 1) is $490 million, which is a $90 million increase from the 2006-2007 budget. Meanwhile, youth services are recommended to get a $156 million budget, up from $116 million in '06-'07.

However, those '08-'09 forecasts were first presented in February — and a great deal has changed since then.

Last week, lawmakers discovered Louisiana faces a $341 million deficit in the current fiscal year. Cuts are needed immediately. Moreover, the state anticipates a much larger shortfall ($2 billion) for the '08-'09 fiscal year. Gov. Bobby Jindal says he plans across-the-board cuts — even for Louisiana's booming prison industry. It'll make for interesting political theater as lawmakers struggle to clear these fiscal hurdles while attempting to correct longstanding problems in the youth prison system — not to mention their own collective desire never, ever, to be perceived as soft on crime. The latter of those concerns typically results in more people being sent to the slammer, followed by skyrocketing incarceration costs.

For their part, prison officials plan to seek budget increases to address their challenges. Earlier this month, Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, laid it on thick for lawmakers. He says 111 new probation and parole officers are needed at a cost of $8 million. He argues that the state's current 554 officers are overloaded and handling 39 more offenders per worker than the Southern regional average. LeBlanc says he also needs more beds, additional oversight for monitoring sex offenders and cash for emergency operations, including generators.

Next in line are members of the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission, who want new dollars and maybe even new powers. Created in 2003, the commission has only limited authority and takes a back seat to the governor's office when it comes to implementing real prison reforms for incarcerated youth. The commission chair, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, 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 address, such as the future of youth prisons across Louisiana, including the storied Jetson Youth Center in Baker.

The Baker youth prison has earned a particularly notorious reputation in recent years, plagued by accreditation problems, deaths and outbreaks of violence. There have been inmate escapes and accusations of sexual contact involving guards. In response to the crisis, 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 youthful violators' special needs. They were to be moved to smaller facilities in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport, each of which has 48 or fewer beds.

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 doesn't mean the doors are shutting. Lawmakers were told this month that the facility would 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 being built by the state to meet the goals of a guiding reform law. Advocates and lawmakers say more reforms and better oversight are needed, which sounds like an argument for strengthening the commission next year. 

It's going to be a soul-searching session for lawmakers, who no doubt will see the usual dozen or so bills creating new laws and enhancing sentences. Chief among them will probably be a Jindal-touted bill to force violent sex offenders to be confined in special treatment centers after their regular prison terms end. Already this idea is shaping up as a perfect way for lawmakers to appear tough on crime. So-called civil commitment programs have experienced problems in the 19 or so other states where they have been adopted, but it's unlikely that Louisiana lawmakers will want to grill Jindal's handlers about that. 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 keeping them in prison.

It all amounts to a vexing public safety and budget issue. But when it comes to Louisiana's booming prison population and the tax dollars it's siphoning from education, health care, coastal restoration and economic development, there's plenty of blame to spread around — to judges, lawmakers, prosecutors and others.

But — with a $2 billion shortfall on the horizon and a $341 million deficit upon us now — it'll be squarely on the shoulders of the Legislature and governor to make sense next year of locking up the entire population of Marrero at an increasingly uncomfortable cost to the rest of the state.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at

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