Hundreds of inmates are about to get early releases from Louisiana prisons and jails, a milestone in a push to reduce the nation's highest incarceration rate.
The early release of roughly 1,900 inmates on Wednesday is the product of a new package of laws overhauling the state's criminal justice system.
The legislation won bipartisan support from state lawmakers, but some elected officials have denounced the changes. Outrage has been stirred up by racially charged remarks by a sheriff who warned that "bad" prisoners will be freed from his north Louisiana jail and also complained that he's losing free labor from the "good ones."
The law allowing for earlier "good time" releases is limited to inmates serving sentences for nonviolent offenses, a designation defined by law, according to state corrections secretary James LeBlanc. They are getting out an average of eight weeks early.
"Sitting in a parish jail for another 60 days is not going to make them a better person," LeBlanc said.
The inmate releases are among the changes in 10 laws that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed in June. Another law requires about $184 million of the estimated $262 million in savings over the next decade to be reinvested in services for crime victims and programs designed to keep people from returning to prison. Louisiana spends approximately $700 million annually on correctional costs.
The measures are projected to reduce the state's prison population by up to 10 percent over 10 years. Louisiana, which now has the nation's highest incarceration rate, could lose that status by the end of 2018, according to the governor's office.
State Rep. Tanner Magee, a Republican who sponsored one of the bills, said the changes were patterned after laws enacted in other Southern states, including Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina and Texas.
"We didn't come up with this whole cloth," Magee said. "It's a proven model."
Louisiana has typically released about 1,500 inmates per month, or 18,000 per year. The total number set for release in November is more than double the usual tally.
Under the new law, nonviolent offenders are eligible for "good time" release after serving 35 percent of their sentence - down from 40 percent before the change, which is retroactive.
LeBlanc said he's confident "public safety is going to be enhanced" by the legislative changes, including the prisoner releases.
"We're all afraid one of these guys is going to do something wrong, but, from my perspective, I can't overreact to those kinds of things. I have to stay the course here, because I know it's going to work," he said.
About 82 percent are being released from parish jails; the rest are coming from state prisons. LeBlanc said his department is reviewing each inmate's file prior to release and has circulated the list to sheriffs and district attorneys.
"If they have concerns, they have my cellphone number," LeBlanc said.
Winn Parish Sheriff Cranford Jordan suspects some legislators who voted for the "feel-good legislation" didn't fully understand the impacts.
"A lot of it is so new that we don't know all the ins and outs of it," Jordan said.
Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator criticized the legislative changes earlier this month. He said one prisoner set for early release from his Shreveport jail had been arrested 52 times.
"I'm not saying we don't need to reform what we do, but certainly we need to take our time and do like some of the other states and have some programs to work on rehabilitation before we just open the gates and flood the streets with some of these people that don't need to be out," Prator said.
Prator held up a folder of paperwork on the "bad ones."
"In addition to them, they're releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money. Well, they're going to let them out, the ones that we use in the work-release program," he said.
Video of those remarks spread on social media, with critics sensing racial overtones evocative of slavery, given the prison system's demographics. A list compiled by the corrections department shows black prisoners account for about 58 percent of the inmates set for early release on Nov. 1.
Attorney Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center of New Orleans, said Prator and other Louisiana sheriffs have exploited inmates' labor to build "prison empires."
"Sheriff Prator's sentiments are blatantly discriminatory and horrifying," she said. "Unfortunately, they reflect the ugliness at the heart of the Louisiana prison system, a criminal justice system shaped by dehumanization and discrimination."
Prator defended his comments, saying his "many years of public service prove beyond any doubt that I view all persons equally."
Gov. Edwards said he met with Prator to discuss the sheriff's concerns and his remarks about the "good" inmates.
"Those are the ones that all states are targeting for criminal justice reform measures," Edwards said during a radio call-in show.