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2,520 Louisiana prisoners might be freed under House GOP budget plan, corrections chief says

2,520 Louisiana prisoners might be freed under House GOP budget plan, corrections chief says

Louisiana Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc is raising the prospect of releasing 1,800 prisoners on Ash Wednesday if the Legislature adopts a budget plan being pushed by House Republican leaders. That would be followed by release of 240 more prisoners per month in April, May and June.

LeBlanc, in an interview Thursday evening (Feb. 16), said it's the only way he would be able to cope with the spending cuts proposed for his department. The prisoner releases would begin March 1.

As a part of a strategy to close Louisiana's $304 million midyear deficit, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, has proposed reducing the Department of Corrections budget by $4.6 million for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. The department's budget was scheduled to be about $518 million for the year, with about $480 million in state funding. 

LeBlanc said the proposed $4.6 million cut would feel like an $18 million annual reduction because it would be implemented in the last quarter of the budget cycle and the agency has already spent a significant portion of its budget. He said he would look at freeing 1,800 prisoners on March 1, followed by 240 per month until the next fiscal year starts July 1. 

"This is not a threat. This is a reality," he said. 

The prisoners would not be those incarcerated for violent crimes or sex crimes. Lower-level offenders would take priority for release, and they would be monitored through the parole process, LeBlanc said.

Those released would include state offenders housed in local jails, meaning the cut might affect the bottom line of local sheriffs' offices, too. The state pays sheriffs' offices $24.39 per day to house a state offender, more than it typically costs, and some sheriffs rely on that money to run other parts of their operations. 

LeBlanc hasn't publicly testified about the effect of Henry's proposed cut on his agency, because the House didn't hold its usual budget hearings on the proposal. Typically, the Appropriations Committee would have had agency heads testify on proposed cuts included in a legislative plan, but the budget bills in the current special session moved so fast this week that those types of hearings never happened.

The Legislature is the middle of a nine-day special session aimed at closing the $304 million midyear budget gap before June 30. Budget proposals must move quickly in order for lawmakers to have a shot at eliminating the deficit by Wednesday at midnight, when the Legislature must adjourn.

Even some members of Appropriations Committee said they had only a few minutes to look over the cuts in Henry's proposal before they were asked to vote on it Wednesday. The full House is expected to vote on the Henry plan, and possibly an alternative plan, on Friday.

Before either passes the House, amendments to change spending cuts or move around money may be introduced. Afterward, the Senate and governor have their say on the measure, including any corrections agency reduction.  

House Democrats are pushing for LeBlanc and other administration officials to get a chance to testify or at least answer questions from legislators on the House floor before the votes take place. Democratic Caucus Chairman Gene Reynolds of Minden said legislators should have a better understanding of what the proposed cuts would do before making a decision on any plan. To let agency heads testify requires a majority vote of the House, where Republicans hold more than half the seats. 

Henry has questioned whether public testimony from departments and agencies is helpful. While he has not been asked specifically about LeBlanc's plans to furlough prisoners, he has said generally that the department heads often paint extreme scenarios for budget reductions to discourage cuts.

A few times over the past week, he has expressed skepticism over whether those dire situations would ever become a reality. There have been times when agencies found other, less alarming ways to absorb budget cuts.

And Henry has said agencies shouldn't be setting the agenda for how the state spends money; the amount of revenue available should dictate how money is spent. 

"I think we will hear that they don't like the cuts," Henry said of the idea of agency heads testifying and answering questions on the House floor. 

LeBlanc isn't the only person who thinks corrections would have to resort to serious measures to absorb a midyear spending reduction. His boss, Gov. John Bel Edwards shielded the Corrections Department entirely from cuts in the governor's budget plan, but the Appropriations Committee blocked that Edwards' proposal Thursday. A second House Republican budget plan that will be discussed Friday also protects the corrections agency from reductions. 

Edwards would spare corrections, along with colleges and universities and elementary and secondary education, from cuts by drawing down $45 million more from Louisiana's reserve account than Henry proposes. The second House Republican plan forces Edwards to make many more cuts elsewhere in government in order to spare corrections, but it does not specify what would be reduced.

When Edwards' budget proposal was put forward, Henry questioned why the governor was protecting corrections. The governor said he didn't think the corrections agency could absorb a midyear cut safely. Louisiana has the highest-in-the-world incarceration rate, and the prison system made some uncomfortable decisions earlier in the budget cycle to cope with other fiscal changes.

Louisiana's two private prisons were converted into jails last summer after the Legislature cut their reimbursement rates and they could no longer meet the accreditation requirements to be considered prisons. That left 2,800 inmates with fewer rehabilitation services and educational programs and less access to health care. It also made LeBlanc uncomfortable. No other state in the country has converted private prisons into private jails for state inmates. 

LeBlanc, who ran the prison system for Gov. Bobby Jindal and was reappointed by Edwards in 2016, said several legislators appear to be under the false impression that his department could absorb much of the cut Henry proposed by eliminating vacant positions. He said the Corrections Department sometimes appears to have a lot of vacant jobs, because of high turnover among prison guards.

A $4.6 million reduction at this point in the year would require him to eliminate 400 positions and lay off employees, something he said he can't afford to do without putting prison safety at risk. 

"I know it's impossible. It's not something we could do," LeBlanc said. "I don't know what it is going to take for them to understand that."