In the old days, the warden would give a released convict a handshake and bus fare. These days, state Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, expects Louisiana taxpayers to give some newly minted ex-cons the keys to a new place.

At least that’s what James told the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last month when the panel considered HB 84 by state Rep. Kenny Havard, which would make technical changes to the state’s unique prisoner work program. The program, which has trusties at the Governor’s Mansion as its most visible face, permits inmates with long sentences the chance to do something productive outside the prison walls.

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Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, throws a wadded dollar bill on the floor making a point as he delivers the graduation address. A new program called RISE (rehabilitating individuals through strategic encounters)is having its first graduation of three former federal prisoners Wednesday Feb. 7, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. They have gone through a year of reentry programming led by US District Judge Shelly Dick.

But at the hearing, James declared the operation “modern-day slavery” because the state pays prisoners just 4 to 70 cents an hour. A few fellow Democrats on the committee agreed, with state Rep. Barbara Norton calling the current pay scale personally offensive and “unfair.”

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They argued that people in prison landed there because they “made mistakes” and didn’t have the wherewithal to stay out of jail, so such low wages served as an affront to their dignities. James added that the state should pay program participants at least enough to allow them a fresh start on a home once they leave the big house.

James then put taxpayers’ money where his mouth was. His HB 809, introduced shortly afterward, would increase maximum prisoner wages by a dollar and also would reduce the part of their paychecks that can be garnished for employment expenses by state as well as local authorities, who can run inmate work programs on behalf of the state. The bill also limits what inmates can be charged for the costs of transitional work programs that allow private employers to hire approved state prisoners close to their release dates.

But as Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc told the committee, the voluntary inmate work program exists primarily to relieve monotony behind bars and to teach specific skills and good employment habits. Any money that inmates make from it is simply a bonus.

The same can be said for similar programs run by parishes and for transitional work programs at the state and local level. When the typical state prisoner costs roughly $15,000 a year to incarcerate, those who participate in work programs should be expected to earn their keep as much as possible. That's justice for taxpayers, and a good way to remind convicts of their debt to society — and how they incurred it. 

Working for next to nothing to repay a debt makes deserving individuals better people. James' legislation takes things in the wrong direction.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the state Legislature is in session, he writes about it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or write to jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.