Inmates freed weeks or months early begin their new lives
Nov. 11, 2017
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Brian Fallen walked out of a parole office in New Orleans on Nov. 1 with a mesh bag full of paperwork, a pack of Kool cigarettes and a plan.
"I hope this works this time. I want to make it work," he said. "I got too old to be fooling around with the crap."
Fallen, 51, is among hundreds of people from the New Orleans area convicted of nonviolent offenses who were released days or months early that Wednesday thanks to a package of criminal justice reform laws passed this year by the Legislature.
The laws are aimed at cutting down Louisiana's sky-high incarceration rate — the highest in the world — and giving men like Fallen a swifter road to redemption.
Some sheriffs have said they're worried about the mass release, but state officials say it is the best way to begin downsizing Louisiana's huge prison system.
The average inmate released is gaining 60 to 90 days of freedom, according to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Fallen, who was convicted of theft and bank fraud, was released 11 days ahead of schedule. Another man from New Orleans had a day knocked off his term.
Among the more than 1,900 inmates released statewide were 139 men and women convicted of crimes in Jefferson Parish, another 139 in Orleans Parish and 82 in St. Tammany Parish. Several dozen more inmates will be released in each of those parishes later in the month.
The new law allows nonviolent offenders who have not been convicted of sex crimes to be eligible for "good time" parole after serving 35 percent of their sentences, instead of 40 percent.
Many of the men and women released were picked up by friends and family just after midnight at prison gates throughout the state. Others arrived on buses at the New Orleans office of state Probation and Parole on Poland Avenue. Agents unshackled the men, many still wearing prison clothes and plastic flip-flops, one by one.
After the parolees filled out their paperwork, they walked into a conference room where a wall of social service providers offered them help finding a job, housing or health care.
"Things were quiet on the bus because we didn't know that we were going to be greeted the way we were greeted," Fallen said. "The services I have received today have overwhelmed me. I was expecting a bunch of crap."
The warm welcome was intentional, according to Steven Lassalle, the district administrator for the New Orleans parole office. The agency has coordinated with state prisons on the freed inmates' paperwork and invited social service agencies into the parole office to smooth the transition.
"It's kind of like prepping for a football game," said Lassalle, a former high school fullback. "You got everything represented in this room . the gamut of treatment and services people may need."
One of those ready to help was Derrick Perique, a peer mentor for the nonprofit re-entry organization the First 72+. He said that as a former inmate, he knows the fears that parolees feel on a day like this.
"I know the feeling of coming home from prison and just the anxiety of it, thinking what I'm going to do next," Perique said.
He stood in front of a group of new parolees to offer help with everything from unpaid traffic tickets to transitional housing.
Among law enforcement officials, the reaction to the inmate release has been mixed.
The inmate release will mean a slightly higher workload for Lassalle's agents. He estimated that the average agent's caseload of 200 probationers and parolees will grow by between 2 and 12 cases.
In the long run, however, the criminal justice reforms passed this year will also offer parolees "compliance credits" that will allow them to leave supervision early for good behavior, slimming the agents' caseloads.
Last month, Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator railed against the early release initiative, saying it would deprive him of the "good" inmates who perform prison labor while also releasing "the bad ones." Officials near New Orleans have taken a more positive view.
Many upstate parishes receive a per diem to hold state prisoners in their jails. Jefferson and Orleans, however, do not house large numbers of state inmates, so the release will have a negligible impact on their bottom line.
"Whether I have to deal with them today or I have to deal with them six months from now, every one of them is coming out. I don't anticipate a big crime wave," said Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto.
Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the release is modest compared with the 18,000 state inmates who walk out of prisons every year. He hopes the public views it as an opportunity to reset the state's relationship with incarceration.
LeBlanc said that for years, few people have asked him about the services available to inmates upon their release. In the past few weeks, he has suddenly been deluged with questions.
"Nobody seemed to care, and now everybody's caring, and I am excited about that," he said.
The long-term goal of the criminal justice reform package is to take money away from incarceration and redirect it toward rehabilitation and re-entry services.
"This is an investment; it's not an expense. We're going to continue to save money with this investment. Those savings will grow over time, I assure you," LeBlanc said.
However, even if the state saves money on the inmates' release, it will not create new services for them until July 2018 at the earliest. In the meantime, men and women like Fallen will be left to the same patchwork that exists today.
Fallen said he had found a bed at the New Orleans Men's Mission. He planned to buy some food — anything other than prison beans — before hopping on an RTA bus to the shelter.
After he settles in, Fallen wants to find work packing boxes or on an offshore oil rig. As someone who's been in and out of prison "quite a few times," he knows he will face steep challenges.
"When you get out of prison, don't nobody want to have nothing to do with you," he said.
Still, he is cautiously optimistic that this time will be different.
"You gotta have faith. I hope I do good. I'm going to pray for myself," he said.
Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com