Congratulations and thanks to The Advocate for your strong and incisive series on the state’s Byzantine tax exemptions and in some cases profligate corporate giveaways. Incentivizing business only makes sense if the incentives created by tax savings provide the state a positive return on its investment. The timing of the series is significant given the state budget is verging on a ruinous, $1.4 billion deficit. As the series points out, it no longer makes sense to further decimate higher education and health care to offset budget deficits.
But there’s another way to reduce state spending that would actually be of benefit to the state: reducing the allocation currently required by the Department of Corrections to house prisoners. DOC’s budget is $760 million a year without considering indirect costs such as health care and pensions.
Other states — notably Texas, Georgia, California, Mississippi and the Carolinas — have seen the folly of mass incarceration for minor offenses. They have rethought mandatory sentencing laws, and retooled probation, parole and re-entry programs to achieve significant reductions in their prison populations and the rate of recidivism. Georgia has reduced its prison population by 15 percent, and by 20 percent for African-Americans and consequently bloated incarceration budgets.
Leading conservatives — including Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist, Ed Meese, Richard Viguerie, Chuck Colson, Ralph Reed, Louisiana’s own Tony Perkins and many others — have joined forces under the banner “Right on Crime” to reconsider mass incarceration. New Orleans-area civic and business leaders — including Committee of 100, Blueprint of Louisiana, Baton Rouge Area Chamber, New Orleans Business Council and Greater New Orleans Inc. — have created a similar program called Smart on Crime. The result is a rare moment in which thinking people across the whole spectrum of political opinion are converging in pursuit of a shared goal.
Locking up a generation of young men for relatively minor, nonviolent infractions has turned out to be a worsening threat to public safety, not a solution. Prisons — particularly the parish prisons to which half of state-adjudicated inmates are relegated in Louisiana — are proving to be dismayingly efficient factories for the production not of safe streets, but of career criminals. Compared with state facilities, Angola among them, the parish lockups are woefully lacking in educational opportunities and other kinds of inmate rehabilitation.
Louisiana, the most incarcerating state in the nation, needs to learn the hard lessons being absorbed in other tough-on-crime states. Mass incarceration is the road to fiscal as well as social bankruptcy.
As your series rightly warns, the Louisiana Legislature may be unable to achieve the consensus needed to significantly revise the tax breaks. But when it comes to the scramble to make do with the revenue reductions that these programs entail, the state would be wise to consider reforms that allow for long-term cuts to the Corrections budget, not just a further gutting of education and health care programs. Schools, universities and essential health care are better than any set of corporate giveaways when it comes to building a stronger economic future for Louisiana. Mass incarceration has weakened us.