- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s corrections department isn’t saving nearly as much money as expected from a new law that allows nonviolent drug offenders to leave prison early and others to avoid jail if they complete a drug treatment program.

A report from legislative budget analysts released this week says this year’s budget assumes $6 million in savings from the law. Instead, the Legislative Fiscal Office says the expectations have dropped by more than $5 million, to $815,000 in savings projected for the 2013-14 budget year that ends June 30.

The shift to rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment for low-risk offenders was backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal as a way to save money and reduce repeat offenses. But the fiscal office said the Department of Corrections has had difficulty finding qualified offenders to participate.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said late Thursday that the administration will ask lawmakers to cover any budget gaps in the upcoming legislative session. She said some of the gaps could be covered with other savings found within the corrections department.

The law, passed in 2013, created an early release program for nonviolent criminals jailed on first- and second-offense charges involving drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. They have to serve at least two years of their sentence, have less than one year left in prison and complete a 90-day treatment program, along with other criteria.

The Department of Corrections originally estimated 844 people would be eligible this fiscal year. The fiscal office analysis, included in a monthly report reviewing budget issues of interest to lawmakers, says the number instead is expected to be 165.

In another portion of the new law, others convicted of similar drug crimes can 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.

But the Legislative Fiscal Office said that diversion program piece hasn’t begun at all, because the corrections department is having trouble finding substance abuse treatment providers to participate.

The department initially estimated 500 offenders would avoid prison under the law this year.

The lessened sentences are only available to people who haven’t been convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses. The provisions of the law will expire on Aug. 1, 2016, unless lawmakers tracking its progress decide to renew it.

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