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Louisiana is shedding its reputation as U.S.'s biggest jailer

Thousands of inmates were released early in Louisiana, where a series of criminal-justice reforms could help it shed the label of America's top jailer.
Image: The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana on May 9, 2011.Patrick Semansky / AP file

Freedom came five months early for Jerome White, and he reminds himself every morning not to spoil that gift.

White, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to vehicular homicide, was one of nearly 2,000 Louisiana prisoners whose sentences were cut short when lawmakers enacted a sweeping set of criminal justice reforms aimed at accelerating a drop in the number of people behind bars. All were set free at once on Nov 1., an unprecedented act of mercy in a tough-on-crime state that prompted warnings of unrehabilitated criminals preying on the public and sapping public resources.

“There are so many people who said, ‘They’re letting them out and they’re just going to go back,’ and I refuse to let that happen,” White said recently.

The release of inmates like White is one piece in an aggressive push to change the way Louisiana thinks about criminal justice, shrink its prison budget and earn a new reputation that once seemed implausible: as a leader in the nationwide effort to dismantle the machinery of mass incarceration.

A sweeping set of reforms is expected to cut Louisiana's prison population another 10 percent over the next decade, and save billions of dollars.NBC News

Sometime in the next few weeks or months, Louisiana's prison population will drop low enough to allow the state to shed the label of having America’s highest incarceration rate. Dropping to No. 2, or lower — Oklahoma, whose prison population is expected to keep growing, is in the second spot, and Mississippi is third — will become a bragging point for many officials, a sign that even the most punishment-reliant states can change their ways.

Other conservative states in the South, including Texas and South Carolina, have already shrunk prison populations while also cutting crime.

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"The fact that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation and a reputation for being tough as nails and has decided to take another direction sends a powerful message to its neighbors and states across the country," said Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project, which helped Louisiana craft the reforms.

But the state's new direction has also exposed one of the most overlooked aspects of criminal justice reform: helping ex-offenders find the things they need to rebuild their lives ─ meaningful work, affordable housing, and proper health care.

The Nov. 1 releases inundated Louisiana’s small network of social-service organizations that assist returning prisoners, forcing them and state parole officials into triage mode. Advocates say the experience may force Louisiana to improve its re-entry efforts, which will be integral to the state’s goal to make reductions in the prison population — and the millions of dollars it is expected to save ─ permanent.

"It gave us a sense of urgency, with the sheer amount of people getting out at one time, but it was also an opportunity to fine tune how we do our work," said James Logan, re-entry services program manager for the city of New Orleans.

Inmates prepared for jobs after their release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.Gerald Herbert / AP file

The reforms include a mandate to spend 70 percent of what the state saves on its prison budget — estimated at $262 million over 10 years — on programs to reduce recidivism.

But the savings has to materialize first.

"It's not as though on Nov. 1 we also opened up a brand new affordable housing complex or someone came up with hundreds of new jobs," said Kelly Orians, staff attorney for The First 72+, a New Orleans organization that helps returning prisoners find jobs and places to live.

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The package of 10 reform measures, signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June, lowered mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, expanded alternatives to prison and made it easier for nonviolent offenders to earn "good time release."

While Louisiana's prison population has been gradually decreasing for several years, analysts predicted that the new laws would make that drop steady and long-lasting. The numbers will decline by 10 percent — from 35,682 to about 32,814 over the next decade, they said.

A big chunk of that reduction came immediately, thanks to provisions that allowed many of the changes to be applied retroactively, making hundreds of prisoners instantly eligible for freedom. State officials scrambled to determine who would be set free. In some parishes, including Orleans, where New Orleans is located, private re-entry groups partnered with parole officials to track those arriving home. But they didn't know exactly who'd be showing up — or what exactly they needed — until the last minute.

In the end, 1,952 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes were sent home on Nov. 1, a massive one-time push that's in addition to the 1,500 or so that get released in a typical month, according to the state Department of Corrections. The early releases will continue for several months, but in much smaller batches.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers surround Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards as he signs 10 criminal justice bills into law during a ceremony in Baton Rouge, La.R.J. Rico / AP file

About 80 percent of them arrived from local parish jails, where the state Department of Corrections houses thousands of inmates as part of a years-old arrangement that avoids the construction of new prisons. Those local lockups don't have nearly the same rehabilitative programs as state prisons, which made the re-entry effort even more challenging.

Most were only set free a few weeks or months early, but they became a target of critics, including many prosecutors, who warned they included habitual or violent criminals.

There has already been a highly publicized account of one newly released prisoner charged with armed robbery. Law enforcement officials have shared stories of others getting in trouble.

Statistically, it is unavoidable that some of them will commit new crimes. But the state hasn't done all it should to prevent it, said Dennis Schrantz, director of the Center for Justice Innovation, which works with parishes to assist returning prisoners.

"This is a call to arms for folks who supported this politically to say, 'Look, now that we support it, and the laws are changed, we need to step up and help these men and women because they're out early and they're not as prepared as they could have been,'" Schrantz said.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, whose parish became home for 145 newly freed prisoners on Nov. 1, said he objected to the early releases only because the men and women wouldn't be prepared to succeed. He's trying to come up with his own re-entry program. "It's easy to say you want justice reform and get down to No. 2," he said. "We're not proud or happy about the number of people we have in prison. But if you're going to have true justice reform, that means helping people so that they won't re-offend."

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Natalie LaBorde said there was little more the state could have done. The agency says there are plans to improve re-entry plans in the local lockups. "The reality is for us in Louisiana that we don't have hundreds of millions to reinvest. So that has to come from the savings," she said.

White considers himself lucky. Returning to New Orleans, where he once worked as a nurse, White, 32, was steered into part-time work at Catholic Charities. He is living in an apartment with his fiancee, has reconnected with his five young children, and is pursuing his dream of becoming a standup comic.

Jerome White during a stand-up routine in New Orleans.Jerome White / Facebook

Every day, he said, he encourages himself to prove the critics wrong. And he keeps in mind the 48-year-old man he killed while driving drunk. "What I'm doing now is for him, too," White said.

"I can't take back what happened," White added. "I'll never know if his family forgives me, but the best thing I can do is be here in the moment, take care of my kids and do good."