Our Views: Big savings, but not yet

Through a great deal of legislative spadework and long meetings among interested officials, Louisiana in 2013 modestly changed its policy toward those convicted of drug crimes.

The new laws allow nonviolent drug offenders to be released earlier than in the past. Some offenders can avoid jail if they complete a drug treatment program.

The extensive arguments over these new laws covered a lot of ground, but one key point in their favor is that incarceration costs a lot of money. Louisiana is No. 1 in jailing people, but there’s a great deal of evidence that when nonviolent drug offenders are concerned, that’s not the best policy.

However, a new report from the Legislative Fiscal Office says expectations of big savings from the new law were not fulfilled.

The current year’s budget assumes $6 million in savings from the law. Instead, the savings will be a relatively paltry $815,000 in savings in the year ending June 30.

The Department of Corrections apparently could not find enough eligible offenders to participate in the program, only about 165 instead of a projected 800 or more.

Another new law allows offenders convicted of similar drug crimes to be diverted to a substance abuse treatment program under probation supervision by the state corrections department instead of being sent to prison. Successful completion of the program ends with the crime expunged from a person’s record.

That program is still getting underway, as slots in drug abuse treatment are difficult to find. The department initially estimated 500 offenders would avoid prison under the new law this year.

Obviously, legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal are going to be looking at how effective the new programs have been, and wonder about these statistics. However, many other states, particularly Texas, have shown significant savings with similar initiatives.

We backed the 2013 changes and want to see the same kind of results that Texas and other states have seen, but we would caution advocates of the new laws that whatever savings can be achieved should not be used to cut the state budget. Instead, that money ought to be ploughed into the probation and parole system to ensure we don’t see the same offenders back with the depressing regularity that we’ve seen in the past.

That is where the real savings will come, as we bend the cost curve of recidivism over a period of years.