Our People Deserve Better

By Jeff Thomas

There was a time people smoked in the office at work.  Ashtrays were everywhere. Cigarette companies were the biggest sponsors of the image conscious NFL.  The Marlboro man and Joe Camel were  iconic American images.  Tobacco companies used to hand out free cigarettes to kids coming out of high schools across America.  Smoking was sexy.  When allowed, tobacco companies spent more money on advertising than any other industry in this country.  And as late as 1991, a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association showed that 5 and 6 year old children recognized Joe Camel more readily than Mickey Mouse. 

But in 2016, the only commercials you see about cigarette smoking are garish graphics depicting the gory affects smoking has on the human body.  As a society, we have overcome the profit driven propaganda steadily poured into the public consciousness by interests that sought to maximize personal profit.  That people were unnecessarily starved of the fullness of their lives and instead endured stunted and shortened existences was of little consequence to these profiteers.  The shift from a focus on the desires of a few at the expense of the uninformed masses means society saves money because healthier people are wealthier people.  However, the transition took decades and millions to move people from ignorant bliss to healthy progress.  Regretably, the forces to maintain the status quo are always leveraged, well financed and resolute despite overwhelming evidence to change. 

The New Orleans city council is facing a remarkably similar quandary.  States and municipalities across the country and especially in the Deep South are recognizing a counterintuitive truth.  Putting people in jail for petty crimes only increases crime.  And reducing prison sentences reduces crime.  Yet there are forces resolute on keeping stiff prison sentences even as we hypocritically move to provide treatment instead of punishment for heroinbutts.  (Heroinbutts and crackheads are treated in polar opposite ways even though they commit the same crimes).

Multiple studies show that incarceration for even minor offenses dramatically increases crime.   Further, a  report from the National Research Council on mass incarceration in the United States finds that lengthy prison sentences do not deter crime.  Here in the mass incarceration capital of the world, we put people in jail for petty offenses and we use draconian laws to severely punish people who commit crimes. 

In Louisiana, we spend over 2 billion dollars annually on criminal justice.  This approach is the manifestation of a punitive approach to governance.  Some states focused law enforcement resources on raising funds via citizen behavior, e.g. speeding fines or fines for disorderly conduct.  The resulting reality was a mutation in over incarceration in some communities. The construction of government bureaucracy includes police, judges, prosecutors, courtroom personnel, jails and prisons, probation and parole, etc. to support this punitive governance. Despite a recent budget crisis, state legislators did nothing to change its approach to criminal justice. 

Putting people in jail causes more crime. 

In New Orleans, we need to spend our resources wisely.  We need a government that serves the people and their needs.  We should not put people in jail for minor offenses.  This creates more crime.   There should be no bail for any nonviolent offense.  Putting people in jail – for even short periods of time – unnecessarily disrupts lives, creates chaos – from housing and  transportation to family breakups – and sends people’s live spiraling toward crime and survival criminality. 

Opponents point to the cost of missed court dates as a primary factor to keep imposing bail.  The costs of increasing crime far outweigh the costs of tracking people who miss court dates.  Instead our focus should be on creating jobs and economic opportunity.  Opponents claim people will commit more crimes if there are no consequences.  Again the reality is different from the rhetoric.  FBI statistics show that petty offenders rarely reoffend when allowed to continue working and living with their families.  And for those who do reoffend, they are often unemployed.  For those who are arrested more than once for nonviolent offenses, should be placed in a jobs training program that pays them to acquire a marketable skill. 

Investing in our people will significantly reduce crime.  Instead of meaningful and transformative legislation and policies, personal ambition has relegated laws offered by the city council to the mundane and popular.  Change requires courage, vision and leadership.  Putting African American men to work in New Orleans is good government and makes sense for all of us.  Increased revenues, lower costs, reductions in crime and blight are just some of the byproducts of meaningful legislation from city hall. . Eliminating bond for nonviolent offenders reduces crime, saves the city money and improves the lives of our people.  Bond and bail in NOLA should be like the Marlboro man. A figment of a bygone era.

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