Louisiana editorial roundup
Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:
NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune says funds must go to re-entry as reforms shrink prisons:
The sentencing reforms Louisiana put in place last year are already paying off. The state saved $12.2 million in the first year, which is more than experts predicted.
Also, after years with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, Louisiana has dropped behind Oklahoma to the No. 2 spot. That still is too high, but our state wasn’t expected to fall out of first place so suddenly.
Louisiana now has fewer than 33,000 inmates, which is the lowest count in 20 years. The state had 40,000 inmates in prisons and parish jails in 2012, which was more per capita than any other state and double the national average.
There are a number of reasons for the drop. Nearly 2,000 inmates in prison for nonviolent crimes were released early on Nov. 1, when the new sentencing laws took effect. Also, fewer people are being sent to prison under the new laws. There has been a drop since 2016 of people being jailed for drug offenses and for nonviolent property offenses.
In addition, the probation and parole count are at the lowest in eight years, prison officials said. The average length of probation was shortened under the new laws, and people on probation are now given credit for good behavior, so offenders are cycling out of state supervision.
The reduction in inmates is encouraging, but it brings us back to the other elements of the sentencing reform package: strengthening reentry and alternative sentencing programs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is providing technical assistance on the state’s criminal justice reforms, describes how that is supposed to work.
To “reduce reoffending, provide services for crime victims, and save taxpayers money,” the law provides for 70 percent of savings to be reinvested in programs to reduce recidivism and support victims. The other 30 percent of savings goes into Louisiana’s general fund.
With $12.2 million in savings, $8.5 million should go toward education, reentry programs, drug treatment and other programs to keep ex-inmates from returning to prison.
This is a vital piece of reform. As the state sends ex-inmates back home or puts offenders in alternative programs instead of prison, they will need community-based programs to help them find a job, get treatment if needed and stay out of trouble.
Under the reform legislation, the state is supposed to provide incentive grants to parishes, judges and nonprofit groups to expand alternatives to prison and invest in programs to reduce recidivism.
More state money also is supposed to go toward grants for victims’ services, treatment and transitional housing.
These kind of support services are essential for reducing the prison population and the crime rate.
Reducing sentences and using alternatives to prison have worked in other states. Texas’ crime rate is down 30 percent since that state passed sentencing reforms in 2007 and started reducing its prison population, according to a task force appointed by the Louisiana Legislature. South Carolina passed prison reforms in 2010 and has closed six prisons. Both its rate of incarceration and its crime rate have dropped 16 percent, the task force said.
Before the laws changed, alternatives like probation and drug courts in Louisiana were limited by a lack of funding and by state law.
Now the state must follow through on the promise to invest in giving ex-inmates the support they need to succeed.
The Courier of Houma says Medicaid expansion is saving lives in Louisiana:
Louisiana expanded its Medicaid program just over two years ago.
In that time, the number of people who were able to obtain health insurance has ballooned.
When Gov. John Be Edwards approved the expansion, about 25 percent of the people in Louisiana lacked basic medical coverage. Since that time, the number is down to around 10 percent.
That is a huge difference in numbers, of course, but the real difference is measured in the lives the expansion will be able to save.
Consider these numbers, which tell just part of the story: 400 women on Medicaid have been diagnosed with breast cancer and begun treatment; 8,000 have had precancerous colon polyps removed; and 57,000 people are receiving mental-health care.
Those are staggering figures that are making a real impact on the quality of people’s lives - an likely saving a good number of lives themselves.
The Medicaid expansion also has some hidden benefits. People who are on Medicaid, for instance, are more likely than those who are uninsured to receive preventive care. That will likely save some money in the long term, preventing more serious - and costly - conditions altogether.
And, people who have insurance of any kind can get medical care at doctors’ offices and clinics rather than waiting until problems become acute and seeking care in emergency rooms. This saves the state and its hospitals the money it was spending on expensive emergency care.
Unfortunately, the expansion has caused some increases in costs. That is to be expected when so many more people are getting coverage. Because of the cost, though, the program has been the target of politically motivated attacks.
Edwards has remained committed to the expansion, and that’s good news for the thousands of working poor Louisianans who have benefited from it. A family of four is now eligible if its total income is around $34,600 a year.
Most recently, a state audit cast doubt on the Department of Health and Hospital’s oversight of Medicaid payments. It rightfully critiqued the state program and suggested better controls to ensure the public’s money is being spent as intended.
Better oversight is clearly needed. It will protect the scarce resources that are paying for the Medicaid expansion and, perhaps, it will silence some of the critics.
The most important thing here, though, is that lives are being saved in great numbers. That is a difference that transcends the political pressures of the expansion.
The Advocate on the future of tourism in Louisiana:
We’ve come a long way from the desperate days of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and nowhere is that more evident than in Louisiana’s tourism industry.
Last year was the sixth in a row of record-breaking state tourism numbers. More than 47 million visitors came to Louisiana, including both domestic and foreign tourists — the latter particularly prized because they tend to stay longer and spend more in hotels and restaurants.
New Orleans, of course, is the crown jewel of Louisiana tourism, one of the internationally known draws for visitors. That is why the images of devastation in 2005 were such a setback for tourism in the whole region.
Today, the convention and tourist business is healthy. “New Orleans has seen steady growth in tourism numbers since 2009, consecutively surpassing our annual numbers in visitation and visitor spending each year,” said Stephen Perry, head of the convention and visitors bureau that is rebranding itself as New Orleans & Co.
The snappier name is a trend in tourism bureaus; it is Visit Baton Rouge in the capital city, for example.
The 18 million visitors to New Orleans are a key part of the overall tourism economy. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, the state’s chief tourism official, said visitors’ spending fueled $1.8 billion in state and local taxes and employed more than 230,000 in related jobs.
The Crescent City is pushing ahead with a new airport and more direct flights to London and Frankfurt. Safety of visitors is always a concern for big cities, which is why Louisiana State Police works with New Orleans police, and quiet work is continually underway to prevent terrorist incidents like those in Boston and Las Vegas.
But the city’s track record for managing big events is unsurpassed, we think, and likely to remain so.
For Nungesser, whose responsibilities include the entire state, the New Orleans draw is also an opportunity to have visitors extend their stays and visit plantation homes and the other attractions in the state.
In Lafayette recently, Nungesser noted that Acadiana’s cultural appeal helps the economy whether energy prices are up or down: “At a time when the oil field is struggling, the tourism industry has continued to bring business into these communities and help the local restaurants, shops and hotels,” he said.
Louisiana, of course, is not immune from national trends. International tourism is not helped when U.S. politicians fulminate about immigration, even if the two really are not connected. Perhaps the ties of blood and heritage will overcome the headline-making fights over trade with Canada and Mexico this year.
There is room for growth.
In the bruising legislative debate over early renewal of Harrah’s lease on the New Orleans casino, eventually shelved for a time, the company’s officials said they felt that they could have booked 90,000 more room-nights last year with a new hotel and other amenities.
We want that company and others to succeed in growing business. Everyone wins with a healthy tourism industry in Louisiana.