Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:
The Lake Charles American Press on state budget cuts:
State budget cuts have taken a heavy toll on a fund that is designed to help victims of crimes in Louisiana. The Crime Victims Reparations Fund was created in 1982 and depends solely on fees and court costs levied on criminal offenses.
The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement administers the fund that receives hundreds of applications for help every year, according to a recent report in The Advocate. Crime victims and their family members plead for help with expenses for counseling, medical bills, lost wages and funerals.
The newspaper talked about some of the crime victims. One is the mother of a 23-year-old shot to death inside an auto upholstery business. A wife said her husband is paralyzed after he was shot in the neck by two burglars in their Gonzales home. An Australian tourist who was caught in a crossfire on Bourbon Street in New Orleans in 2014 was shot in the face, causing severe jaw, tooth and tongue injuries.
The fees and court costs have brought in about $1.3 million annually and federal grant money adds several hundred thousand more each year. However, over the past five years payouts from the fund have dwindled from just over $2 million in 2010 to just over $1 million.
A 30- to 90-day backlog started to grow about 15 months ago and the Crime Victims Reparations Board said it is now running 11 to 12 months behind. Some claims determined eligible for compensation have been waiting on payment for more than 18 months.
The Commission on Law Enforcement that oversees the fund does depend on budget funding that has been cut by the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration and the Legislature. As a result, money from programs like the crime victims fund has been used to help pay the commission’s administrative costs.
The Division of Administration said the commission should look for ways to reduce its administrative costs. They totaled $371,000 in fiscal year 2010-11 and climbed to $652,495 or 60 percent of state collections in fiscal 2014-15. During that same period, total claims paid out of the victims fund dropped from an average of $1 million per year from 2010 to 2013 to just $515,000 in 2014-15.
Getting money from the fund isn’t easy. The Advocate said eligibility requirements are among the most stringent in the nation. Victims can’t receive funds if they contributed to their victimization and can’t have had a felony conviction of any kind in the last five years. Payouts are limited to $10,000, and only four other states cap payments at that low a level.
The Legislature at its spring session passed a bill that authorizes unclaimed gambling prizes to be used to compensate victims of sexual assaults. The commission hopes that will help clear up the claims backlog, but it hadn’t received any of the money by the end of November.
Despite the long waits, crime victims have nothing but praise for the fund. That should spur Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards and the new Legislature taking office Jan. 11, 2016, to give this and similar funds a higher priority than they have received over the last eight years.
The Advocate on Louisiana’s jail population:
With more than 6,000 inmates, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the biggest lockup in the state that incarcerates the most people per capita. The sprawling prison in West Feliciana Parish is roughly the size of Manhattan.
Overseeing an operation that large ought to be a full time job, and it pays well, with a salary of $167,211. But somehow warden Burl Cain always found time to get entangled in complex business deals, at least two of which compromised his ability to run the prison and may have violated Corrections’ personnel rules.
One of the people who joined him in his other business ventures was his boss and good friend, Jimmy LeBlanc. The two are so cozy that when the department launched a probe into Cain’s business ties to a relative and a friend of Angola inmates, LeBlanc recused himself. Luckily the business deals are being probed, not just by the Corrections office but also by the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
It will be interesting to see what Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards makes of the mess at Corrections.
Cain, 73, has announced his retirement, sparing the new governor from figuring out what to do with him.
Since then, the state Inspector General’s Office has announced another probe of the longtime warden.
The probes by Corrections and the legislative auditor focus on Cain’s real estate deals with the stepfather of one inmate and a friend of another offender. Both prisoners were offered favorable treatment not available to most of the men behind bars. The business deals appeared to go against corrections rules prohibiting “nonprofessional relationships” between employees and inmates’ friends and relatives.
The newest probe, by the inspector general, is a criminal investigation whose focus has not been disclosed.
Edwards is in a tough spot, since he won a key endorsement from the state sheriffs’ association and the sheriffs have been muscular supporters of Cain and LeBlanc - who control the flow of state inmates needed to fill overbuilt jails in many parishes.
But taxpayers will not be impressed if the governor chooses a business-as-usual approach.
For one thing, LeBlanc’s friendship and business relationship with Cain raise questions about whether the swashbuckling Angola warden was supervised appropriately.
Department personnel rules require that “mail or phone calls received from offenders or their families outside the normal course and scope of the employee’s job duties must be reported at the earliest opportunity to the employee’s supervisor.”
But Corrections officials have never responded to questions about whether Cain reported to his supervisor on his business ties to the allies of the two inmates.
Louisiana needs a fresh start at Corrections, especially if Edwards aims to fulfill his promise to end our state’s reign as America’s leading jailer.
One place to look might be Texas, where liberals concerned about incarceration and conservatives worried about government spending have worked in concert to control the state’s prison rolls.
The Courier on making New Orleans children safe and secure:
The statistical snapshot of children’s lives in New Orleans is pretty bleak. Almost 44 percent of youngsters under age 18 in the city are living in poverty. That is a much higher rate than for Louisiana (27.9 percent) and the nation as a whole (21.7 percent), according to the Youth Index report released Tuesday (Dec. 15) by the Data Center.
Eighteen to 24-year-olds are at high risk of being killed here. Forty-three of the 150 murders in New Orleans in 2014 were in that age group, the report said. Another dozen children under age 18 were killed.
More babies here die within their first year than in the rest of Louisiana and nationwide. The rate for New Orleans is 9.3 per 1,000 births. The state rate is not much better - 8.7 - compared with 6.0 nationally.
Too many third-graders can’t read at a basic level, which is a warning sign of academic problems to come. Only 56 percent of New Orleans public school students scored at basic or above in language arts on statewide testing in 2015.
Too few children in the city get immunizations - only 76.4 percent, compared with 80.1 percent statewide. Both numbers are below the state’s target of 90 percent.
There are some positive trends - in the number of high school graduates and young people with a bachelor’s degree living in the city, for example.
But the strain on young people in New Orleans is undeniable.
The Data Center produced the report as part of an effort to come up with solutions for the problems plaguing children. As grim as many of the numbers are, the hope is that the Youth Index will serve as a launching point for change.
“The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. In New Orleans, how successful we are in raising that next generation is a collective concern,” the authors write in the introduction to the report. “An essential first step in any planning effort is the development of a baseline,” and the Youth Index provides that baseline.
This report follows one the Data Center released earlier this year on child poverty.
That study found that New Orleans has the ninth-highest child poverty rate among 39 mid-size cities. The main problem, the Data Center said, was the low level of wages in New Orleans. The majority of families in the city with children - 82 percent - have a parent who is working. But the wages for many of them aren’t enough to provide for a comfortable life. Single mothers are in an especially difficult situation. Fifty-eight percent of families in New Orleans headed by a single mother are poor. That is worse than it was in 1999.
These statistics can guide policies and programs to address the problems defined in the Youth Index. Future reports will measure change and help define what is working and what isn’t.
The index report is part of the Youth Shift project, a coalition working since 2011 to make children’s lives safer and more stable. The coalition released a report the same day as the Data Center.
That report, “A Call for Connection,” lays out goals for what every New Orleans child should have: access to primary health care and healthy food, freedom from trauma, safe spaces to live and to play, high quality early childhood programs, adequate transportation, among others.
The study found that there are a variety of programs in place in the city to deal with those issues, but staffing and resources are lacking. There also is a need for more collaboration.
Among other initiatives, the coalition hopes to give young people more of a voice in the kinds of programs they want. For example, the New Orleans Health Department is looking at a leadership program that would encourage youngsters to advocate for policies affecting them.
The plan for 2016 is to recruit children and parents to be involved in planning, build support among community leaders and look for funding for youth programs.
New Orleans must “develop children and youth-centered public policies and strategies to ensure that young people come first,” the Youth Shift report said.
That seems so obvious, but clearly it hasn’t happened yet in New Orleans. If it had, children would be better off than they are.
The Youth Shift report includes a quote from President Barack Obama’s speech in August when he was here for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“You’ve made a lot of progress. That gives us hope,” he said. “But it doesn’t allow for complacency. It doesn’t mean we can rest. Our work won’t be done when almost 40 percent of children still live in poverty in this city.”
Absolutely not. We should not rest until all of those children are flourishing.
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