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How ‘the incarceration capital of America’ embraced criminal justice reform

For decades, the state of Louisiana has been known as the incarceration capital of America. But over the past year, the state has been trying to shed that reputation with new reforms that decrease the prison population and save money. William Brangham went to find how it’s playing out for former prisoners, in a story produced by Frank Carlson in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For decades, Louisiana locked up its citizens who had been convicted of crimes at nearly twice the national rate, many for nonviolent offenses and for far longer terms, without the chance for probation or parole.

    But over the past year, Louisiana has attempted to overhaul that system.

    Correspondent William Brangham, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, reports now.

    It's the next installment in our series Chasing the Dream on poverty and opportunity in America.

  • William Brangham:

    Haki Sekou walked free today for the first time in 41 years. He was locked up decades ago for second-degree murder and armed robbery.

    What are the next couple of days and weeks going to be like?

  • Haki Sekou:

    Connecting with people I hadn't seen in so long, things I haven't did, things I took for granted before I left this freedom, enjoy what freedom means, understanding responsibilities that come with freedom.

  • William Brangham:

    Sekou enjoy that freedom today only because of the new laws passed last year in Louisiana. And he represents just one life among thousands now being changed by the state's criminal justice reform.

    For decades, the state of Louisiana has been the incarceration capital of America, this in a country that incarcerate more people than anywhere else on Earth. But over the past year, Louisiana has been trying to shed that reputation.

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    This is about as big as it gets.

  • William Brangham:

    Jimmy LeBlanc is the secretary of corrections in Louisiana and a former prison warden.

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    Everybody's behind this, realizing that Louisiana has no reason why we ought to be number one in the world of locking up people. And I might say that we're in the top 10 in every crime category. We're locking up everybody we can, but yet we are still in the top 10 on crime stats. You know that? So, something's not right here.

  • William Brangham:

    Last year, Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who ran on this issue, joined with the Republican-controlled legislature to pass 10 new reform laws. The goal? Cut the state's prison population by 10 percent over 10 years, save the state more than $260 million, and lose that number one status as the nation's incarceration capital.

    So, one year in, how is it playing out?

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    We're not number one in the world anymore. And I always have a tendency to thank Oklahoma for that, because they're now number one in the world.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    In the first year, Louisiana's prison population fell 7 percent, 20 percent among nonviolent offenders. They did this through targeted releases and greater access to probation and parole.

    That drop saved more than $12 million, the majority of which will go back into the system to help people stay out of jail.

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    Employment is a key component of them making it when they get out of here. I mean, if they don't have a place to go to work, then chances are, they are going to end up back with us.

  • William Brangham:

    To help with that, the state plans to use the savings to spend more on education, job training, and other programs inside prisons and local jails for those who are nearing the end of their sentences.

    That's already happening at the auto shop at Angola, the state's notorious 18,000-acre facility, the country's largest maximum security prison.

    John Sheehan is not nearing the end of his sentence. He's here for life after being convicted in the late '80s of killing his wife. But he's dedicated his time to teaching inmates a skill that will help them land a job and stay out of prison.

  • John Sheehan:

    You want somebody coming out of prison that can be productive in society, instead of coming out of prison and be a menace to society.

  • William Brangham:

    The savings will also find more supervision and reentry work being done outside prison walls.

    In 2013, this New Orleans nonprofit was founded by six formerly incarcerated men.

  • Man:

    He helped me when I came out, and so I was able to help my brother when he came out.

  • William Brangham:

    They want to help people just like them adjust to life on the outside.

    Ben Smith spent 13 years in Angola and is now the executive director of the group. It's called The First 72+.

  • Ben Smith:

    Those first 72 hours upon a person's release is the most critical time. That's going to tell whether you're going to make it or break.

  • William Brangham:

    Norris Henderson spent 27 years at Angola.

  • Norris Henderson:

    Because, one, if you don't have housing, where are you going to be? You're going to literally be on the street. And the few dollars you got, they're going to disappear, because you got to eat.

    And what's going to happen, folks going to gravitate back to those environments that cause them to wind up in prison.

  • William Brangham:

    Here, they give formerly incarcerated people, known as FIPs, many of whom they know personally from their own time in Angola, the basics.

  • Man:

    I will always be grateful.

  • William Brangham:

    A bed to sleep in, donated food and clothing, like a suit to wear for a job interview.

  • Man:

    I made a good selection here.

  • William Brangham:

    Help obtaining a driver's license and food stamps, transportation to meetings with their parole officers, all seemingly simple things that men like them struggle with after so many years behind bars.

  • Charles Sneed:

    I came to jail when I was 17 years old. I made one mistake. Never been to juvenile detention or anything like that.

  • William Brangham:

    Osby Bryant and Charles Sneed were also freed this week after more than 40 years in prison, convicted in the 1970s of second-degree murder.

    For them, this is where a new struggle begins, particularly in a world driven by so much technology.

  • Osby Bryant:

    At the bus station, I seen this little kid about this high — she couldn't have been no more than 4 years old — with a cell phone in her hand. And she was just going — just her fingers just going as fast as I don't know what, you know?

  • Charles Sneed:

    That is a struggle in itself, not to take it — even mention that I'm 61 years old, about to make 62. He is 70-something years old.

    So it's like, who is going to give us a job? How are we going to get an upstart? How are we going to get some stability to our lives?

  • William Brangham:

    Another former inmates trying to find stability is Antonio Montgomery. In June, he completed 15 years of a 16-year sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery. He was released early for good behavior.

    He's been helping out at The First 72+ since then, as well as working for Ben Smith and his food truck on weekends. He's a graduate of the automotive program at Angola and has been trying to find a job in that field. But it's been tough.

  • Antonio Montgomery:

    The main thing you have to go through is the stigma that people have of a person just out of prison.

    And I understand that nobody cares that…

  • William Brangham:

    They still think you're a criminal.

  • Antonio Montgomery:

    Right. Nobody cares that you are saying you want to change or that you are saying you want to do better or whatever. Nobody cares about that.

  • William Brangham:

    That same day, Montgomery learned that, despite being told he was well-qualified, a local car dealership wouldn't hire him because of his convictions.

    How common is that?

  • Daniel Tapia:

    Depending on the convictions, it's extremely common.

    I dealt with the same thing when I was getting out, and not just with jobs, but with housing also. My first year out of prison, I was working in the oil and gas industry offshore. I made over 100 grand, and I couldn't get somebody to rent me an apartment.

  • William Brangham:

    Daniel Tapia works for Rising Foundations, another nonprofit that helps former inmates find jobs.

  • Daniel Tapia:

    Every conviction is a life sentence, you know?

  • William Brangham:

    With the state's reinvestment money, organizations like The First 72+ are applying for funding to expand their work to meet the growing demand from those now being released.

  • Norris Henderson:

    In the journey of 1,000 miles, we took 200 steps, which is huge, given this state.

  • William Brangham:

    Norris Henderson, one of the founders here, was part of the state's task force that helped shape and pass these reforms. He's heartened by what he's seen thus far. But.

  • Norris Henderson:

    We're a long way from being fixed, because, as we are trying to start the car and get the car running, somebody is letting the air out the tires at the same time.

  • William Brangham:

    One of those people, he says, is the state's top law enforcement official, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry. He's been a critic of these changes.

  • Jeff Landry:

    We just said, for political reasons, we're going to do criminal justice reform, and I'm going to — and it's going to be great. We got, Louisiana is bad because we incarcerate too many people, we're going to fix that by just giving the key to the criminals and say, hey, just get out of jail.

  • William Brangham:

    He argues that, in a rush to lower the state's incarceration rate to save money, the state put public safety at risk, and that it should have invested up front in better training programs, screening of inmates and post-release supervision, rather than after the release of thousands of inmates.

  • Man:

    Good evening. Statewide, they're seeing nearly a quarter of those who were released re-offend.

  • William Brangham:

    Attorney General Landry points to high-profile cases of inmates who, under the reforms, were released early and then re-offended.

  • Jeff Landry:

    I mean, there was one particular case where a man got out of jail — 30 days later, he was arrested for carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Are you willing to say, you know what, for the sake of money, I'm willing to put my kids at risk?

  • William Brangham:

    According to the Department of Corrections, so far, the recidivism rate of inmates released in the first year of these reforms is on track to be the same as the year before. And it argues the state is saving money by reducing prison capacity.

    But Landry doesn't buy it.

  • Jeff Landry:

    Whether we have got 10 people in jail or 100,000 people in jail, OK, does it matter? In other words, shouldn't we be evaluating and working to ensure the people that go into the criminal justice system, OK, after or as they work through their sentences are ready to come back into the community? That's the way you address public safety.

    You get caught up in the fact that we got too many, it doesn't matter.

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    You know, immediate gratification is putting you in prison. That's immediate gratification. And I understand that. But that's not what this is about.

  • William Brangham:

    Secretary LeBlanc told us he agrees it would have been better to front-load these investments, but the state didn't have the money to do it that way. He knows some inmates will re-offend, but cautions not to let those individual instances derail this broader effort.

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    This is long-term. Give us an opportunity to make this work, because it is going to work.

  • William Brangham:

    And you feel confident that public safety is not going to suffer?

  • Jimmy LeBlanc:

    Oh, I'm — public safety is going to be enhanced. There is no question about that. We're going to improve public safety in this state. And I would guarantee that.

  • William Brangham:

    Next year, Governor Bel Edwards will be up for reelection, giving voters a chance to weigh in on whether the reforms are working for the state.

    Attorney General Jeff Landry is expected to run against him.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham at Angola Prison.

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