APPEL: The Media Misses The Mark, As Usual, On Prison Reform Critics

This morning there was an Advocate editorial attacking Senator Kennedy’s comments on Louisiana’s criminal justice reform. The media’s vehement defense of the reforms is not unexpected but sadly it conceals the real issues.

The reforms that were passed were generally a concept that was brought by the Pelican Institute and the business community over the past several years. As governors do, as they loosely aligned with his unilateral promise to reduce prison population by 5,500 felons, our governor co-opted these concepts.

Whatever the political motivation the goal of reducing prison population, if accompanied by a corresponding reduction in crime, is a good thing for our state and its people. That’s the key, not to gain political points by letting felons out of jail early or to just reduce prison populations because the left thinks that there is some conspiracy to lock up black people. The goal is public safety and a better way of life for people who, through their own free will, chose the criminal way but could possibly be re-directed.

Unfortunately the media would prefer to highlight a minor political controversy rather than digging into the gritty business of what it takes to succeed. Frankly there are two issues that may well cause this set of reforms to come crashing down. In order to understand this we must grasp that there is only one way to reduce recidivism – released felons must be engaged into legitimate society by helping them land meaningful and good-paying work.

Those who defend the governor constantly highlight that we will use a portion of the savings from reduced incarceration to train the offenders with job skills. Unfortunately this is but a shallow talking point and as I will explain further is of questionable value. What does “train for meaningful work” mean anyway? The people of Louisiana should demand detailed explanations about exactly how much will be saved and, more importantly, how it will be spent. Training and diversion programs could help but only if sustained, well-financed efforts are made to implement these programs. Spreading savings around to political pals with no strategic plan will ensure failure at the outset.

To highlight this point let me cite what took place in the crafting of the legislation. In order to pass this legislation it contained language that a large amount of savings will be diverted from training to payments to sheriffs who make certain commitments. Do we really believe that this money will go to the purposes for which we have been told to expect or is it just a political move by a governor to shore up his support with law enforcement? Yes, I am a terrible cynic, but history is prologue!

In the end effectiveness of these programs may not matter anyway. We can train and engage soon-to-be-released felons all we want, but if there are no jobs for them, there is no doubt that these folks will quickly revert to the life that landed them in prison to begin with. Herein resides the real problem. If this state cannot provide a growing economy that creates room at some level for ex-convicts, most with limited skills and limited work experience, then we are just fooling ourselves. Clearly the governor is focused upon reducing prison population in isolation. That was his promise and that is what is happening. The real issue, the one the media avoids, is that at the same time he has demonstrated no vision for how to grow the economy. This failure to create work opportunities for released felons will in short order provide for high levels of recidivism and an increase in crime.

So in response to the editorial, I get that the media loves to defend the governor and to attack the Senator, but they do a great injustice to the people when they allow their own political agenda to obscure the issues. As is often said, “The devil is in the details.” The details in the extant case are not the number of released prisoners; the details are the effectiveness of a meaningful effort, a long term effort, to engage ex-convicts into society. In order to achieve that goal there is only one path, giving released felons the tools that it takes to get a job, coupled with a growing economy that creates job opportunities from the top to the bottom of the spectrum of potential employees.

It may sell newspapers to highlight a petty political fight but only when the media probes our leadership for answers to the fundamental issues does it really fulfill its mission. The goal of reduced prison population is laudable not in isolation; it is laudable only if it is coupled with reduced recidivism and enhanced public safety.

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