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Louisiana editorial roundup

April 3, 2019

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

April 2

The Courier on imprisonment after release ordered:

The state Department of Corrections and local jail officials have a large, ongoing problem, and although many have known about it for years, it has continued unabated.

The state department recently examined the records of 200 inmates. Those inmates had to wait an average of 49 days past their release dates to actually be released from prison.

At a cost of $2.8 million a year on top of the inestimable cost of unjustly imprisoning those who have paid their debt to society and earned their release, this is a problem that demands a solution.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week that he plans to ask the state Legislature to set up a structure in which state and local officials can work together to craft a solution.

The officials say that the main sticking point is the delay between local agencies at the state department. Judges often sentence inmates to time served and order their release. But the state will not release them until it receives paperwork on the case from the local court system.

This should not be so difficult. If a person is ordered set free by a judge, the court should be able to communicate that information to the jail immediately, and the jail should be able to decipher the information and act on it without so many steps of bureaucracy.

In a matter that involves jailing or freeing people, there must be certainty. But that doesn’t mean there should be so much needless delay.

In an age in which massive amounts of information can be sent or shared with the click of a mouse, people who are ordered free should be set free.

From the outside, at least, this doesn’t seem like it’s an insurmountable problem. With the will to fix it, our state and local officials should be able to come up with an efficient system to replace the current, burdensome system. But does anyone possess that will?

There also seems to be no need for a legislative debate and another layer of government workers meeting to fix what comes down to a paperwork problem.

If there are state laws that require some of this information to be conveyed physically from courts to the state to the local sheriffs, that would be an easy fix. If it’s anything other than a glitch in the law that hasn’t kept pace with technology, it could likely be fixed by better communication.

And we don’t need a law for that.

Online: https://www.houmatoday.com/

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April 1

The Advocate on Mississippi River flooding:

After the disastrous flooding of 2016, the people of Louisiana have an understandable sympathy for those in Nebraska and elsewhere in the Midwest, where levees have been overtopped and thousands forced from their homes.

And those news events are of some immediate interest, as the Mississippi River rises higher and higher.

“The longer the river stays up, the more susceptible the levees are to failure,” said state Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville.

And if a levee breaks, “God help us if that happens here,” Lambert said.

While both statements are certainly true, there is some reassurance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett told The Advocate that the river is still operating within its capacity and studies are showing the flooding has reached its crest, which means those water levels will start slowly receding. But there are still unknown factors this flood season.

“They’re expecting to reach a record length of time for being above flood stage. For our processes, we’re at the capacity of what the system is designed to do,” he said. “It’s kind of a matter, to us, of maintaining inspections and processes so if something does occur that would threaten that system we can intervene.”

That is part of life in the spring in Louisiana, although this is high water with a vengeance. Some high water near a flood plain in St. Francisville drew attention this month.

As Lambert told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, the Bonnet Carre spillway has been opened more frequently in the last few years, but there are really a set of issues that the senator called attention to. One is the management of the river levels by the Corps, another is better planning and coordination in river basins and a third is the goal of building more diversions to use river sediments to combat Louisiana’s coastal erosion.

Each requires close attention. Relations with the Corps are always important to Louisiana.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has pushed for better coordination among parishes in river basins, although Lambert said that the state might ultimately have to go a step further because of the complications of rivers and streams that require management across political lines.

And on the issue of diversions, Lambert is right: “If we’re going to have a chance to rebuild Louisiana, we’re going to have to have some river diversion projects.”

Still, those are very expensive, with the biggest — the mid-Barataria, now a central part of the state’s coastal plan — clocking in at well over $1 billion. Lambert said more diversions higher up the Mississippi would help preserve areas like the Maurepas swamp that are a vital protection for the river parishes. But with projects so expensive, the age-old question is how to fund them.

That will require more collaboration in the state, but ultimately a lot of help from the U.S. taxpayer will be needed.

Online: https://www.theadvocate.com/

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March 31

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune on eviction in New Orleans:

The citywide eviction rate in New Orleans is nearly twice the national average and almost four times higher in some low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods, according to a new report that analyzed court and neighborhood data.

In the first six months of 2018, roughly 31 households were evicted each day courts in New Orleans dealt with eviction cases.

The problem is caused by a combination of high rents, falling wages, a loss of public housing and a lack of legal protections for renters, and it affects black residents far more than white residents. That is in part because the city has never recovered from racist policies begun in the late 1930s that marked entire neighborhoods as too high-risk for home loans.

Basically, everything is stacked against residents in New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods.

With so few affordable housing options, the city’s eviction epidemic isn’t surprising.

When adjusted for inflation, the average rent in New Orleans has gone up 49 percent since 2000, according to the report written by Davida Finger, a Loyola University law professor, and the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. Gentrification has pushed longtime residents out of some neighborhoods.

Income has fallen as rents went up, and even tenants in neighborhoods with some of the city’s lowest costs can’t afford the rent.

The median market rate rent in New Orleans is almost $1,000 a month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In 2016, the median income for renter households in New Orleans was $24,000 per year. A household at that income level should not spend more than $600 per month in rent and utilities, so many families’ resources are far below the $996 median cost for a two-bedroom market rate apartment.

And there is essentially no legal protection for renters in Louisiana. Landlords can file for eviction one day after rent is due and even if a renter is only short by a few dollars. You also aren’t allowed in Louisiana to withhold rent to try to force a landlord to repair a dilapidated rental.

Once you’ve been evicted, you get listed as a bad risk and may have trouble finding another home or be forced to live in a less stable neighborhood. And the statistics quoted in the report only include evictions that went through the court system, so there are even more informal evictions going on in the city.

It is no wonder so many families here are in turmoil. That must start to change in this spring’s legislative session.

The eviction report recommends four changes in state law that would help protect renters.

--A 10-day grace period for renters who have unexpected expenses. This provision would give renters up to 10 days to pay before courts get involved. Alabama and Mississippi have similar laws.

--Replace the 10-day no-cause evictions with a 30-day notice on month-to-month leases. Currently, landlords can force those tenants to move out in 10 days for no reason. The national standard is 30 days. And the report points out that the extra time is especially important in New Orleans because of the difficulty of finding another place that’s affordable.

--Prohibit language in leases that waives the five-day notice for an eviction. Allowing the notice to be waived essentially creates immediate evictions.

--Allow judges to delay evictions for up to seven days in cases of severe disability, serious illness, dangerous weather conditions or other “exceptional circumstances.”

Those are all reasonable changes, and legislators ought to be open to them.

Breonne DeDecker, program manager of housing and advocacy for Jane Place, said the changes will be included in a bill being introduced in the Louisiana Senate this spring.

At the city level, the report advocates for a Smart Housing Mix Policy requiring market rate and luxury developments to include “units affordable for the average New Orleanian.” The City Council approved that sort of policy Thursday.

Jane Place and other housing advocates want the city to use other measures to increase affordable housing and to create a rental registry to track the condition of homes.

But those policies will take time to have an effect. Strengthening protection for renters could make a significant difference in the meantime.

Reducing evictions “isn’t about taking money out of anyone’s pockets,” but about giving everyone a chance to have a stable home, Finger said. The changes suggested in the report would bring Louisiana in line with national standards, she said.

Legislators should at least give Louisiana families those basic protections.

Online: https://www.nola.com/