New Orleans, La. (WDSU)- Louisiana incarcerates more people, per capita, than any other state in the country, according to a new report from the federal government.

The state held the top spot for years, but state leaders celebrated when Oklahoma overtook Louisiana a couple of years ago. The welcome unseating for the top spot came a year after Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a of package criminal justice reform laws in 2017 that were aimed at shedding the title.

The news comes despite that the state’s prison population has decreased – a trend seen around the country.

There were 680 people in prison in Louisiana for every 100,000 residents, according to the report form the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s down from a rate of 695 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2019 – a drop of 2.4%.

Nationally, the prison population decreased by slightly more — 3% overall, resulting in the lowest prison population since 1995, the report says. Just 16 other states and Louisiana had incarceration rates higher than the national average of 419 per 100,000 people.

The following states had the second through fifth highest incarceration rates: Oklahoma (639 per 100,000), Mississippi (636 per 100,000), Arkansas (586 per 100,000), and Arizona (558 per 100,000).

A Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesman said criminal justice reforms have led to a 32% reduction in the state’s prison population from its peak in 2012. Spokesman Ken Pastorick said the state’s incarceration rate has dropped further since the end of 2019, to 602 inmates per 100,000 residents as of September 2020. At its peak eight years ago, the state incarcerated 40,583 people for a rate of 893 per 100,000 residents. There are 12,890 fewer people locked up this year compared to the 2012 peak, Pastorick said.

“What cannot be lost or discounted is the fact that the historic and bipartisan criminal justice reforms Gov. Edwards signed into law in 2017 are working,” Pastorick said.

State lawmakers can take more steps to bring down the population without threatening public safety, ACLU of Louisiana Director Alanah Odoms-Hebert said. Providing addiction services to those accused of drug offenses, limiting the state’s harsh multiple offender law and examining life without parole are sensible reforms that better serve the community.

The consensus building accomplished in 2017 made a big impact, Odoms-Hebert said. And while another effort for criminal justice reform will take commitment from many stakeholders, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

“We’ve got to do what we can to get people out of prison that shouldn’t otherwise be there, recognizing that these are our citizens…The right thing is to have people home with families so they pay taxes, they can take care of their families, they can educate themselves and be productive members of society,” she said.

Incarceration rate factor in local decision on jail expansion

The news about Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate comes as a federal judge mulls a decision to expand New Orleans’ local jail. Those in favor of adding a new building, including the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and lawyers for inmates who sued the agency, say the OPSO needs a new building to better treat inmates with serious mental health problems. The City of New Orleans opposes building “Phase III” building, instead advocating for a retrofit of the existing Orleans Justice Center jail to treat inmates with special needs.

The decision is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Lance Africk because he has overseen the jail’s federal consent decree since it was put in place in 2013 to remedy unconditional conditions at the jail.

Even though New Orleans jail population – roughly 900 inmates — reached historic lows in recent months, it’s still higher than the national average.

New Orleans City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf said New Orleans has been successful in recent years in bringing down its jail population by implementing policies that avoid jailing people for lower level offenses.

“We know that unfortunately our state has been described as the incarceration capital of the world and that certainly is a title that we don’t want,” LeBeouf said. “The only way that we are able to maintain and continue on the successful path that we are on is that we’re not overinvesting in incarcerating people who otherwise would not be in jail.”