by Raheem Williams
In 2017, Louisiana implemented a historic set of criminal justice reforms to reign in the state’s inefficient public spending for programs that reduce violent crime. By focusing taxpayer resources on violent crime and reducing recidivism, the state is generating cost savings. If the projection holds, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) of 2017 should equate to about $184 million in the first ten years of implementation. At first glance, this initiative seems to be a resounding success since cost savings are up, but information has surfaced lately showing the lack of oversight has led to questionable expenditures.
From implementation in late 2017 to June 2018, the reforms have netted the state over $12 million in cost savings. In the first full year of implementation, from 2018 to 2019, this number climbed to $17.8 million. By law, 70% of the savings from the prison population decline is supposed to go towards programs to compensate victims and reduce recidivism.
A reduction in recidivism is a key part in helping offenders reintegrate into society and increasing public safety by helping offenders lead a productive life and not end up in prison again. If the funds saved by the reduction in violent crime from promoting re-entry were used on programs to reduce recidivism, there would be even more cost savings, but there are some serious questions about the oversight of these funds and the potential for abuse.
In recent weeks, reports surfaced showing that the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections used JRI savings to construct a new facility at the Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center in Cottonport. Although prison officials didn’t outright admit wrongdoing, they agreed to not use JRI funds for future construction. Officials argued the facility is necessary to serve the JRI’s intent, but lawmakers are rightfully apprehensive about the use of cost savings to grow the size of prisons instead of the intended programs to reduce recidivism and violent crime.
The Cottonport Correctional Center wasn’t the only facility to grow using JRI funds. The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement also used $666,000 in JRI funds to build a family justice center in Baton Rouge.
There are several questions and concerns at hand here:
- To what extent is new physical infrastructure needed to implement programs to reduce recidivism?
- Did the construction of these facilities violate legislative intent?
- What percentage of JRI funds (if any) are being misused for pet-projects and did this come at the expense of more effective programs?
Currently, it’s unclear if these questions can be answered in earnest without more fiscal transparency and safeguards in the disbursement of funds. Although these projects eventually received scrutiny, this scrutiny came after the construction started. In the current framework, it appears government officials can spend JRI money as they please and justify it later.
Furthermore, continued concerns around the misuse of expenditure coding makes it nearly impossible to know how many other ethically questionable disbursements have been made by officials misusing JRI funds. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the 2020 JRI performance report has yet to be released and the Justice Reinvestment Implementation Oversight Council hasn’t met in well over a year, creating another layer of secrecy around potential funding abuses.
A more timely and detailed accounting of JRI funds is necessary to reinvest taxpayer dollars in programs that reduce recidivism and help re-entry, so we can make sure our resources are going towards the goal of increasing public safety.