Tracy McMooain was a 48-year-old man with a history of drug problems when he pleaded guilty in a St. Tammany Parish courtroom to possession of cocaine in October of last year.
It was McMooain’s fifth conviction — all for possession of cocaine — since 1993. So the District Attorney’s Office decided to charge him as a habitual offender and ask a judge to sentence him to life in prison, according to Amanda Trosclair, a public defender who represented McMooain. After some negotiation, a judge sentenced him to 22 years.
Long prison terms like these have come under a microscope as a result of America’s high incarceration rates. And St. Tammany — sometimes nicknamed “St. Slammany” — seems as appropriate a venue for a discussion on the topic as any.
McMooain’s case came up Tuesday morning during a conference in Mandeville about why the parish, and Louisiana in general, locks up so many prisoners and what can be done about it.
Although District Attorney Walter Reed has embraced the “St. Slammany” moniker, others have advocated alternate methods of rehabilitation, especially for nonviolent and drug offenses.
The conference, organized by the Alumni Foundation of Leadership St. Tammany, a nonprofit community-leadership organization, featured speakers from academia, law enforcement, the judiciary and other fields, many of whom said it’s time to end high incarceration rates.
During much of the event, speakers and questions focused on the two areas of criminal justice that consistently fuel those high rates: drug abuse and mental illness.
Peter Scharf, of the LSU Health Sciences Center’s Institute of Public Health and Justice, urged his listeners to consider not just the economic cost of incarcerating a large number of people but also the philosophical underpinnings of such a policy.
“It’s like putting lunch on a credit card,” Scharf told the crowd, which was heavy with business leaders and elected officials. By incarcerating more and more people while not looking for alternative rehabilitation methods, he said, society is just “deferring costs.”
According to Scharf, the average number of prisoners per 100,000 people in the industrialized world is 100. In the U.S., that number is 403. In Louisiana, it’s 867, and in St. Tammany Parish, there are 1,079 prisoners for every 100,000 people, he said.
Scharf also cited Louisiana’s recidivism rate — 47.5 percent across all crimes — in saying that long sentences aren’t helping reform the convicted. By far, the highest percentage of repeat offenders is among people involved in drug-related crimes, he said.
“Will St. Tammany be safer in 10 years as a result of its criminal justice strategy?” he asked.
Scharf also questioned whether the sentences handed out in some cases are “fair,” a word he defined by citing German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said punishment should be consistent with the moral damage done in the crime.
“Does a property or drug offense merit a multiyear imprisonment?” he said.
For Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz, the answer was maybe. He said the issues raised by Scharf are complex, going beyond any single law enforcement agency, district attorney, judge or jail.
“What is your personal safety worth at the end of the day?” he asked.
Lentz pointed to St. Tammany Parish’s relatively low crime rate and argued that would-be criminals know they are likely to get caught and get a stiff sentence there. He added that criminal filings in the 22nd Judicial District courts have fallen over the last several years.
In addition, Lentz said, law enforcement and the courts do all they can to keep first-time drug offenders out of jail, offering diversion programs, probation and other options.
Scharf suggested other factors could be at work, pointing out that St. Tammany has “good demographics,” including a relatively well-to-do population.
Scharf and Lentz were followed by a panel that included Public Defender John Lindner, attorney David Cressy and Nick Richard of the St. Tammany chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
They agreed that distinctions should be made between violent and nonviolent offenders and that programs to treat drug addiction and mental illness should be increased, especially in parish prisons, which house as many as 50 percent of state Department of Corrections inmates. In many of those smaller jails, programs to assist inmates are “minimal,” Scharf said.
Judge Peter Garcia, of the 22nd Judicial District Court, spoke after the panel and praised St. Tammany’s specialty courts, such as drug courts, a re-entry court, a sobriety court and a mental health court.
Garcia added that in many cases, judges’ hands are tied in sentencing by mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines. He urged people to contact their legislators, who earlier this year rejected a bill that would have reformed marijuana sentencing laws.
Angola Warden Burl Cain also spoke, giving the audience a slide-show tour of the sprawling prison in West Feliciana Parish and touting the prison’s educational, religious, health care and agricultural programs. He also lauded its annual rodeo, which he said pays for re-entry and educational programs.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.