La. sheriffs ask for more pay for housing, feeding inmates

Sheriffs are asking for a $4 increase per inmate per day to the rate they are paid to house around 18,000 prisoners

Julia O'Donoghue
NOLA Media Group, New Orleans

BATON ROUGE, La.  —  Louisiana’s sheriffs want more money for housing inmates as the prison population drops and the state becomes less reliant on local jails following a criminal sentencing overhaul enacted two years ago.

Sheriffs are asking for a $4 increase per inmate per day to the rate they are paid to house and feed around 18,000 state prisoners. The daily rates currently range from $10.25 to $24.39, and sheriffs want the increase to apply across the board, said Mike Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association. The per diem increase would cost the state about $25.8 million in additional funding, said Thomas Bickham, chief financial officer for the prison system.

The sheriffs have stiff competition for that extra money. Several state programs, including the foster care system and K-12 public schools, are also asking for millions of dollars to expand services.

Still, sheriffs are among the most powerful political entities in the state, and it’s an election year for the Louisiana Legislature. In many communities, the sheriff is the most influential elected official, one who could significantly help or hurt a state lawmaker’s chances.

Sheriffs have long complained their inmate housing compensation is inadequate. Ranatza said it costs more than $34.50 per day to house an inmate. The prison system reimburses sheriffs $24.39 per day for most prisoners, a rate hasn’t gone up since 2008. It’s far less than the $60 per day the state spends to house offenders in its own prisons, Renatza said.

Sheriffs with inmates in transitional work programs get paid either $10.25 or $14.30 per inmate per day, but they can garnish more than half of these prisoners’ wages in some cases. Ranatza is pushing for the same $4 increase to their per diem rates.

Louisiana is more dependent on sheriffs to house local offenders than any other state in the country. Sheriffs are responsible for housing more than half of Louisiana’s 32,000-person prison population. Other than California and Louisiana, 48 states house fewer than 5 percent of prisoners in local jails.

While sheriffs have been complaining about their reimbursement rate for years, the impact of the criminal justice overhaul the Legislature approved in 2017 could also be exacerbating their situation. Louisiana’s prison population has decreased since the new laws were implemented, and the state no longer has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

The prison population hit a high of 40,170 people in 2012 and has declined ever since. During the first full year that the criminal justice overhaul was in place, Louisiana’s prison population dropped by 1,342, according to prison system data. The reduction has primarily affected inmates in local jails who are more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said.

At a recent budget hearing, Ranatza said sheriffs were housing 3,500 more inmates in 2014 than they do today, and they currently have 5,000 vacancies in their jails. “The numbers are down all across the spectrum,” he said.

Ranatza said Louisiana sheriffs are now turning more to acquiring federal detainees -- such as immigrants who might have come into the country illegally -- in their facilities. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will pay local law enforcement to hold such people.

“What’s going up is the number of federal detainees,” in local jails, Renatza told the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee.

After the criminal justice overhaul was implemented, sheriffs expected a population decline but may have also anticipated a bump in their work release program enrollment. The new laws expanded the number of years that an inmate could participate in work release.

Ranatza said work release programs aren’t operating at capacity. Bickham, the prison system CFO, said in an interview there is a struggle to inmates eligible for work release since the criminal justice changes took effect. Good candidates are being released earlier now, he said.

While their per diem rate has stayed the same, some sheriffs housing state inmates are expected to see increases in funding as a result of the criminal justice reform. LeBlanc has earmarked $1.9 million in extra funding for jails in Plaquemines, East Baton Rouge, St. Tammany and Caddo parishes.

These sheriffs must use the extra money to increase educational and vocational programs for state inmates. LeBlanc selected these facilities for the money because he is hoping to move more offenders to those locations in the final years of their sentences. Prisoners from New Orleans and Jefferson Parish who are close to their release date, for example, are supposed to be housed in Plaquemines Parish under a new Department of Corrections strategy.


©2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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