Friday 28 January 2011

Prison officials aim to stop repeat crime

BATON ROUGE — When almost half of the people who get out of prison are back within five years, many within 18 months, it's not hard to see what should be done to stop the revolving door, says Thomas Bickham, assistant secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Bickham told a legislative review panel Thursday that's why his boss, DPSC Secretary Jimmy Le Blanc, is focusing so much attention on a new "Re-entry Program" that aims at better preparing inmates for life on the outside.
Topping the list of challenges facing the department, Bickham said, is "we're No. 1 in the world in per capita imprisonment. And 1 in 26 citizens is in some type of supervision," either in prison or on probation or parole.
Bickham said Louisiana has tough sentencing laws but the state is still in the top 25 of all serious crimes committed each year.
"Ninety-five percent of our people are coming back into society, most to the communities where they lived," he said. Many have health, mental health and drug problems and "they came to us with sixth-grade educations."
Le Blanc has said that with 35,000 of the 40,000 state inmates in state and local prisons to be released into the same environment that led to committing crimes that sent them to prison, they must receive at least GED certificate and training that could get them a decent job.
"We can't work miracles," Bickham said, "but what we can do is at least prepare them better than when they came to us."
DPSC has converted the former Steve Hoyle Center in Tallulah into a re-entry center for women and has programs in Shreveport working with Sheriff Steve Prator and a similar facility in New Orleans.
Bickham said it's too early to be certain but the facilities appear to be successful. He said 323 went into programs and 129 have been released. Only one had to be sent back to prison.
Also, day reporting centers were established in Shreveport and in New Orleans for inmates who have minor infractions of parole and probation requirements to try to keep them out of prison, he said.
Substance abuse is the root of most crimes, he said. The crimes might not have been drug-related — like robbery or burglary — but "it was drugs that drove them to do that." DPSC now has "an intense substance abuse program."
Sen. B.L. "Buddy" Shaw, R-Shreveport, questioned whether going to prison was enough "punishment" for some inmates. He said that when he was elected to the state House of Representatives 24 years ago, "the district attorney told me none of the people he prosecuted showed remorse. Those persons had no conscience."
Bickham said that as the "keeper of the keys," "we can tell those who want to change." He agreed with Shaw "it doesn't bother some of them."
"They're well fed, well-housed — somewhat, they have adequate clothing and medical care," Shaw said. "It may be a better life than they have back home.
"Two things I am trying to avoid are hell and jail," he said.
Bickham said moral and faith-based programs are working for prisons, too.
State Police Commander Col. Mike Edmonson said that like corrections, his department is finding ways to be more efficient, especially with budget cuts.
He said he's cutting some things but not his office's primary functions.
The crime lab has been beefed up with more employees and equipment that enabled a huge backlog of evidence, particularly DNA, to be reduced, he said.

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