NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana could realize hundreds of millions of dollars in savings over the years by finding alternatives to imprisoning nonviolent offenders, a report from the Legislative Auditor said.
“While incarceration is necessary for offenders who pose a threat to public safety, implementing strategies to reduce Louisiana’s incarceration rate, especially for nonviolent offenders, could reduce costs and still keep the public safe,” the report said.
The audit released Monday noted that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation — 816 of every 100,000 residents locked up. And, it said that 58 percent of those locked up had no convictions for violent crimes in their past.
Reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and providing more rehabilitation services to inmates are among suggestions in the report, which also suggests pre-trial diversion programs and more drug courts to steer nonviolent criminals away from jail.
The report estimates that using drug courts as an alternative to prison could save nearly $70 million over two years.
It also says more data is needed on other types of specialty courts, such as those for people with drunken driving records, people with mental illness or veterans with various needs.
Making the case for alternatives to prison, the audit report cited corrections data for a class of nonviolent drug offenders convicted from 2009 to 2015. Sentencing them to two years of probation instead of incarceration for the median sentence would save the state between $101 million and $232 million, depending on whether they were locked up at state or local facilities, the report said.
The audit report included a list of recommendations for the Department of Corrections, including suggestions that the department evaluate programs aimed at anti-recidivism and other rehabilitation programs for effectiveness. The department agreed with the recommendation in a letter responding to the report but added that such evaluations would be complicated because prisoners often take part in more than one.
Another recommendation: the state prisons agency should evaluate whether its current efforts to reduce supervision for low-risk convicts are effective and, if so, consider expanding the practice and look into early termination of supervision.
The department said it agreed to an extent, but worried about the risk to the public of less supervision of some offenders. Also, the department said, the Legislature would have to change state law regarding an early end to supervision for convicts on parole.