UPDATED: And Now, JohnBelObama.com

Yesterday, we showed you a John Bel Edwards ad in which he pre-emptively whined that David Vitter was going to lie about his record and made the case for how “David Vitter wouldn’t last a day at West Point.”

And we made the case for how to counteract the assertion that any critique of Edwards is a lie by a hypocrite, one has to put Edwards to work indicting himself. And also, contra the rather weak messaging in the Republican Governors’ Association ad making a blanket statement that Edwards and Barack Obama are one and the same and rattling off a trio of votes Edwards made about welfare for illegal immigrants and cuts to education, etc., how it’s necessary to find issues in which (1) Edwards has taken a position similar to Obama and (2) that position is far out of the mainstream of Louisiana’s electorate and then drive home specific messaging on those issues that voters can understand through all the clutter.

It didn’t take long for the Vitter campaign to make us look like we know what we’re talking about, because yesterday JohnBelObama.com went live. The site doesn’t have a whole lot to it, but when you pull up the main page you’ll see a 30-second spot which is a textbook example of what we were trying to get across yesterday. You may have seen this spot on TV, because it started in heavy rotation across the state yesterday…

The ad is pitch-perfect, because it doesn’t just tell voters that Edwards is in lock-step with the president but shows them that’s the case.

Most voters might well agree that attempting to reduce prison populations is a laudable goal, and that people who have drug or mental problems probably should be somewhere other than jail.

But that’s not really John Bel Edwards’ position. He lacks the nuance to put forth a plan to create conditions where we can reduce prison populations and still keep the streets safe. Instead, he’s putting a number out – Obama is letting 6,000 inmates out of federal prisons, and Edwards specifically says he’s letting 5,500 out of state prisons if he gets elected governor.

Here’s the video of the speech he gave at Southern University in February when he said this…

Notice that Edwards isn’t saying he’s aiming for 5,500 prisoners to be let out because that’s how many of them are aged and no longer represent a threat to society, or because they’re really mentally ill and need treatment in hospitals rather than prison, or whatever. He’s not using that number as the product of detailed research into Louisiana’s prison population to determine who and how many it would be safe to release.

He’s using it because if Louisiana let 5,500 inmates out of its prisons then we would be behind Mississippi in terms of per capita incarceration rates.

He wants to empty the jails of 5,500 people because to do so would make him and his audience feel good.

It’s right there in that video clip.

Now, it might be that there are 5,500 inmates in Louisiana’s prisons who could be let go and the net effect would be positive – they wouldn’t cost us any more tax dollars to feed and house them, and they’d get a job and do productive work, etc. I don’t think anybody really argues with the proposition that reducing the prison population the correct way is a worthy goal.

But John Bel Edwards starts off with the idea that Louisiana can’t be the state which incarcerates more people than any other on a per capita basis if he’s governor, and does his math and makes his policy from there. As though it makes a bit of difference whether we’re first or second.

Our prison population is as high as it is because we’re overrun with criminals in this state. That’s a function of crappy public schools (which John Bel Edwards is the legislature’s foremost opponent of making reforms to, by the way), terrible rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, a negative culture in many of our communities, drugs and an economy that has never sustained enough growth to pull a large segment of its poor into the middle class. The prison population is a symptom of those problems, not the disease. And injecting that prison population back into the communities which created it in the first place only worsens all of those problems, and probably hardens them.

The idea that you’d do something so reckless just to score differently on some academic ranking somewhere is not one that a serious political leader would entertain.

So either John Bel Edwards isn’t the serious leader he says West Point taught him to be, or he’s not the honest man he says he is. It could be that he went to Southern and told those people what he thought they wanted to hear so they’d vote for him, which is what politicians do all the time and while it doesn’t make him worse than what he says Vitter is it sure doesn’t make him better.

Either that, or he really is John Bel Obama. He takes the same approach to the crooks in Louisiana’s prisons that Obama is taking to the terrorist superstars in Guantanamo Bay; just let ’em out, because it’ll make us feel better – and damn the consequences.

UPDATE: Edwards is screaming about the ad and calling it a lie, and explaining why he says he can reduce the prison population by 5,500 without letting anybody out of jail…

“They’ve (the Vitter campaign) had a tracker follow me around, and I’ve given the same speech to all sorts of audiences- white, black, conservative, liberal.

“And of course they seized upon the fact that I talked about the same matter at Southern, in an effort to inflame folks. They take it out of context. If you looked at the entire video (of my speech) and saw what I said before and what I said after that statement, you would know that I am not talking about releasing any inmates.

Of course he is, but here comes his obfuscation…

“I’m talking about adopting new strategies that have been successfully adopted in other conservative states like Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia to reduce the number of inmates they’re having to keep in their prisons. And to save money. You can do it without threatening public safety. But you do it with working with the sheriffs, with the DAs, with the secretary of the Department of Corrections.

“You focus on non-violent offenders. You make sure there’s more pretrial diversion available, which the DAs are in complete control of, and then you also make sure you have more specialty courts like drugs courts, sobriety courts, mental health courts, veterans courts, where judges and DAs together exercise discretion as to who makes it into those programs and who doesn’t.

This from the same guy who says he’s for local governments making their own decisions when it comes to things like bulldozing monuments. He’s now talking about “making sure” there are all these alternatives to the criminal system for people who break the law, which could well do some good – but there is a reason Louisiana doesn’t have enough of those kinds of things to suit John Bel Edwards, and that reason is the local governments don’t have the resources to supply them. So what he’s talking about is pouring more state resources into local drug courts and pretrial diversion programs and the like, when Louisiana’s state budget is already in a billion-dollar structural deficit and when there is already far too much state control over the penal system according to many.

And while it’s not a bad idea to experiment with some of these alternatives to prison there is no positive showing that these initiatives save money or maintain or increase public safety in the places they’ve been implemented. That jury is still out.

“And you produce a bunch of savings because, over time, your recidivism rates go down; the amount of people that you’re putting in prison goes down. You take a good chunk of that money. You then invest it in additional reentry programs and efforts so that you further reduce recidivism. And you also make sure that you’re doing substance abuse treatment and counseling, as well as mental illness treatment.

Recidivism rates going down would save money, but nobody knows how much or how long it takes to achieve these decreases in recidivism. And more, this idea that you can start some magical snowball rolling down a hill whereby at some point you’re going to eliminate the need to put people in prison without positively addressing the circumstances and culture which cause all the crimes they commit in the first place is exactly what it sounds like: bullshit.

But now here’s something which is not bullshit, and it proves that the Vitter ad is correct…

“This is what other states have down. We should not aspire to be number one in the nation in incarceration rates. I’ve talked to the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. (He says) that would require us to reduce our inmate population by 5,500, and then we’d be number two to Mississippi.

“And I have said that as governor, I’d have it as my goal that we would not be number one in the nation. So I do have it, as my goal, as governor, without threatening public safety and focusing on my non-violent offenders and those with substance abuse crimes, that we would change the criminal justice system.

Meaning that Edwards went out and found out that it would take 5,500 less inmates to have a smaller incarceration rate than Mississippi and built his policy goal off that.

He’s not building his policy goal off the idea that you would reduce crime enough to go below Mississippi in incarceration rates organically, he’s merely focusing on the end result. He’s saying you’d incarcerate fewer criminals through the use of more therapeutic means of dealing with them and that would produce the decline.

There is zero evidence this is actually going to happen.

Most of the crime in Louisiana comes from gang culture in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. You can put all the stoners you want through drug treatment and keep them out of jail, with our blessing, and you won’t get Louisiana off the top spot in incarceration rates.

The fact is, the majority of the “non-violent offenders” who actually go to jail are people who have copped a plea for a non-violent offense when the cops and the DA know they’re really guilty of something worse (i.e., drug dealers who get charged with possession) but can’t prove it. This idea that we should be emptying the jails of all the innocent smokers of weed who’d never hurt a fly is a fantasy concocted by politicians both on the Left and now on the Right, as they compete for votes.

The jails are already full of violent criminals. Non-violent criminals have very short stays there as it is, because there is no room to put them there with fresh violent offenders on the way.

Some of what Edwards is advocating is well-meaning, and in a few cases his approach should produce positive results.

But having a goal of putting fewer criminals in jail, amid the out-of-control violent crime surge in New Orleans for example, simply isn’t practicable. And so Edwards is going to need to explain what’s more important to him – getting the necessary number of criminals off the street to reduce the crime and the criminal culture in the places it is destroying, or meeting this goal of 5,500 fewer inmates in Louisiana’s jails.

He can’t do both, unless he’s good with the murder rate going way up and the criminals killing each other off and making it unnecessary to put them in jail.  Certainly not in four years his goal won’t be met.

Vitter’s ad shows accurately that forcing the incarceration rate down regardless of the amount of crime that necessitates it is what Edwards seeks to achieve, and he can explain it away all he wants. If he wasn’t precisely who Vitter says he is he would never have offered that 5,500 as a goal.

UPDATE #2: So we can head off the inevitable faux-wonkery from the Democrat camp seeking to debunk the update above, I direct the reader to an excellent piece by Heath Mac Donald Smith at the Wall Street Journal last week on this very subject…

There may be good reasons for radically reducing the prison census and the enforcement of criminal laws. But so far the arguments advanced in favor of that agenda have been as deceptive as the claim that prisons are filled with casual drug users. It is worth examining the gap between the reality of law enforcement and the current campaign against it, since policy based on fiction is unlikely to yield positive results.

Two days before his Oklahoma penitentiary visit, Mr. Obama addressed the NAACP national conference in Philadelphia and raised the same themes. The “real reason our prison population is so high,” he said to applause, is that we have “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.”

This assertion is the most common fallacy of the deincarceration movement, given widespread currency by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow.” That a president would repeat the myth is a demonstration of the extent to which ideology now rules the White House.

Pace Mr. Obama, the state-prison population (which accounts for 87% of the nation’s prisoners) is dominated by violent criminals and serial thieves. In 2013 drug offenders made up less than 16% of the state-prison population; violent felons were 54% and property offenders 19%. Reducing drug-related admissions to 15 large state penitentiaries by half would lower those states’ prison count by only 7%, according to the Urban Institute.

We really need to dip back into Mac Donald Smith’s piece for just a little more (though you ought to read the whole thing)…

In federal prisons—which hold only 13% of the nation’s prisoners—drug offenders make up half of the inmate population. But these offenders aren’t casual drug users; overwhelmingly, they are serious traffickers. Fewer than 1% of drug offenders sentenced in federal court in 2014 were convicted of simple drug possession, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Most of those possession convictions were plea-bargained down from trafficking charges.

Another myth promoted by the deincarceration movement is that blacks are disproportionately targeted by federal drug prosecutions. The numbers tell a different story: Hispanics made up 48% of drug offenders sentenced in federal court in 2013; blacks were 27%, and whites 22%.

Even on the state level, drug-possession convicts are rare. In 2013 only 3.6% of state prisoners were serving time for drug possession—again, often the result of a plea bargain on more serious charges—compared with 12% of prisoners convicted of trafficking. Virtually all the possession offenders had long prior arrest and conviction records.

Nor is it true that rising drug prosecutions drove the increase in the prison population from the late 1970s to today. Even during the most rapid period of prison growth—from 1980 to 1990—violent prisoners accounted for 36% of the rise in the state prison population, compared with 33% from drug offenders. From 1990 to 2000, violent offenders accounted for 53% of the census increase and all of the increase from 1999 to 2004.

Mr. Obama and other incarceration critics have targeted mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes. The current penalty structure is hardly sacrosanct, but mandatory sentences are an important prosecutorial tool for inducing cooperation from defendants. The federal minimums are also not lightly levied. A 10-year sentence for heroin trafficking requires possession of a kilogram of heroin, enough for 10,000 individual doses, with a typical street value of at least $70,000. Traffickers without a serious criminal history can avoid application of a mandatory sentence by cooperating with investigators. It is their choice not to do so.

One more bit…

If the country is really serious about lowering the prison count, it is going to have to put aside the fictions about the prison population. The legendary pot-smoker clogging up the rolls is long gone, if he ever existed. Cutting the prison population will require slashing the sentences of violent criminals and property offenders (many of whom have violent histories) and keeping more of them in the community after their convictions.

On Tuesday night, New York Police Officer Randolph Holder was fatally shot in the head. His killer, according to law-enforcement authorities, was a career criminal who had been diverted to drug treatment after his latest conviction, in lieu of a prison term. The shooter had absconded from his drug program, authorities said, and was gang-banging in an East Harlem housing project when he killed Officer Holder, who had responded to reports of shots fired.

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