- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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Jan. 15

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune on prison phone rates:

Companies that provide phone service for inmates in Louisiana jails give more of the money they collect to sheriffs and wardens than they keep for themselves. That tells you how lucrative the business is. Much of that money is paid in the form of commissions that give jails a share of the phone providers’ revenue from calls. Those payments are also commonly called “kickbacks,” which is exactly what they are.

The companies are so generous because the more they pay in commissions, the more likely they are to get the service contract. The result is exorbitantly high per-minute rates in Louisiana for calls from prison, as Times-Picayune reporters Richard Webster and Jonathan Bullington documented in a series on parental incarceration last week.

The burden for paying these outrageous fees falls on families who simply want to maintain some connection to their loved ones in jail. Sibil Richardson spends $260 to $450 per month so that her six sons can talk to their father, who is serving a 60-year sentence for attempted bank robbery.

“It’s the only way I can maintain my family,” Ms. Richardson said.

Some people say, so what? They argue that jails have extra expenses because they have to monitor inmate phone calls. They say that it’s the inmates’ fault if their families are suffering because of their bad behavior.

Those arguments ignore that many people in jails across Louisiana have yet to be convicted of anything. They also ignore the good that comes from prisoners being able to stay in touch with their spouses, parents and children. Phone calls and visits are an incentive to inmates to behave in prison and motivation to stay out of jail after they are released. Inmates leaving prison who have no family or community connections are more likely to be drawn back into crime, experts say.

The connections also can help children deal with the absence of their parent.

Charles Levesque, a Loyola University New Orleans law school graduate and former Rhode Island state senator, helped write legislation to make prison calls more affordable there. “When you send people to prison, obviously you’re trying to punish someone who did something wrong,” he said. “But the basic premise is rehabilitation and entering them in the community. Otherwise it’s kind of barbaric if all you’re doing is punishing somebody.”

Louisiana is the most punitive state in the nation. The state moved in that direction when it passed draconian sentencing laws that sent people to prison for long stretches for nonviolent crimes. Our state has begun to move away from those policies, but it still locks up more people per capita than anyone in the world.

That means that thousands of children here are left to patch together a relationship through phone calls and occasional prison visits. The fact that the state allows jails to profit off them is abhorrent.

The rates vary across the state, depending on individual contracts with jails, but a 15-minute call can cost as much as $4.50. A family calling the Orleans Justice Center for an hour conversation each day would pay $126 per week. For perspective, it would cost $6 per week to call India via Skype.

The money going to overpriced phone calls could be better spent in communities across the state on families’ basic needs. A mother shouldn’t have to choose between paying rent and allowing her children to talk to their father.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission finally passed a new rate cap last April: 30 cents a minute for collect calls and 25 cents a minute for prepaid/debit or credit calls. But commissioners did nothing to rein in commissions, which also end up being paid by inmates’ families.

The commissions range in Louisiana from 34 percent to 87 percent of phone revenue for jails. In 2015, commission payments totaled almost $5 million for the state’s Department of Corrections and $6 million-plus for sheriff’s offices and parish governments across Louisiana, the Times-Picayune review of billing records found.

Arguably, much of that money should have stayed with families to spend on food, rent and other expenses.

“Predatory phone companies gouge already poor families, and it is disgraceful,” said Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the nonprofit law firm that represented Orleans Parish inmates in a class-action lawsuit over unconstitutional conditions.

“Families have to choose between filling prescriptions, keeping the lights on, and being able to communicate with a loved one who is behind bars. In the end, we all lose because the person locked up is deprived of the benefit of community and family support in moving forward with his or her life.”

The PSC and legislators have allowed that to happen.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is starting his second year in the Governor’s Office, has said he wants to reduce the state’s prison population by 5,000 inmates. That is an important goal. If he succeeds, more families would be able to stay to together.

But there always will be inmates in state prisons and parish jails. Gov. Edwards and other state leaders should ease the financial burden on their families. They ought to do away with phone commissions. Families are going to suffer for a loved one’s wrongdoing no matter what. But the state shouldn’t compound their misery.

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

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Jan. 15

The Advocate of Baton Rouge on the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students:

At one time, the political argument at the State Capitol was that TOPS is the Legislature’s sacred cow.

Now, with deep cuts this semester to the tuition awards, there is questioning within higher education about whether the entire program is affordable and, perhaps more importantly, achieves the goals that university leaders want.

A study mandated by the Legislature at the behest of Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, is intended to make higher education more efficient amid budget cuts that total $700 million in the past seven years. A restructured TOPS, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is on the Board of Regents’ long list of changes that could be made in a world where state government is giving only fractions of what it used to provide in general fund support for colleges and universities.

Businessman Richard Lipsey of Baton Rouge, chairman of the board of regents, emphasized that proposed changes to TOPS and other areas are merely the initial conclusions of the regents’ staff.

Under the recommendations released Monday, college freshmen would be eligible for 80 percent of their total tuition costs, 90 percent for sophomores. The full TOPS award would go to those making it into junior and senior years. The goal is retaining students in school, and ensuring that they graduate with four years or so, instead of the six years or so that is a commonplace now. The fact remains that the qualifications for TOPS are not very challenging academically. That makes many students initially eligible for scholarships, but another consequence is that as many as 40 percent of students don’t make the grades in college to retain TOPS, although that rate is reported to be improving, according to the Regents.

Changing academic requirements ought to be part of this discussion. If we’re trying to prepare students to compete in a global marketplace, then TOPS should reward merit, not mediocrity.

A 15-hour course load would be required, instead of the 12 semester-hours. When the Republican-dominated Legislature refused to pass tax increases to fill the huge budget holes left by former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, TOPS was the victim of cuts last year. The budget is such a mess that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration doesn’t have flexibility to cut elsewhere than in health care and higher education. Edwards said he still supports full funding for TOPS, but he told editors and reporters of The Advocate last week that the political reality is that once one starts cutting a program, it becomes easier to do it again during tough budget times.

Any changes under the proposed Regents plan would occur over four years, beginning in the fall of 2018 for entering freshmen, and so there would be less disruption than this spring, when TOPS awards dropped by more than a third from the previous spring semester.

Students were told years ago that if they took the TOPS curriculum and did well enough to earn an award, they’d get their tuition paid. Now, they’re not, at least in full. Students are learning that political obligations are not necessarily matters of principle.

If that lesson makes young people more cynical about politics, it’s a very bad thing. If it leads them to call their legislators and get involved to support higher education funding, maybe it will help.

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

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Jan. 17

The Courier of Houma on public defenders:

Public defenders - the lawyers who represent criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire attorneys - might not do the most popular work.

But what they do is a crucial part of our criminal justice system, essential to ensuring fair trials and equal treatment under the law.

Unfortunately, public defenders’ offices across the state have fallen on hard financial times. And with yet another budget shortfall looming in the state budget, more cuts could be coming.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has said that state agencies should expect 5 percent budget cuts. And those cuts will likely fall on the state Public Defender Board just as they will other public offices.

The problem with that outcome is that a public defender is more than just another state bureaucrat. A public defender does essential work without which we all suffer.

Picture this scenario: You are arrested and charged with a crime, but you cannot afford the bail to get out of jail while you await your trial. So you sit in a cell. But with cash-strapped public defenders’ offices struggling to make ends meet, many defendants are remaining in jail with no legal representation whatsoever.

That is a recipe for disaster.

Perhaps people can tell themselves that they will never find themselves in that situation. But people throughout our state are in that position right now.

The state owes it to all its residents to make sure its criminal justice system is fair, and a large part of that is protecting the rights of the accused, one of which is a right to counsel.

Our state is, once again, in a budgetary dilemma. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s constitution gives lawmakers and the governor less flexibility than they need to address shortfalls.

Because the constitution protects too many areas of the budget, health care and higher education are two places that fall under repeated cuts when times get tough.

That’s not fair. And neither is it fair to shortchange criminal defendants because of short-term budget problems.

Some of the state’s expenses are important; and some are crucial.

When it comes to protecting the health of our most vulnerable people or protecting the educations of tomorrow’s leaders or protecting the fundamental right of Americans to a fair trial, these are essential priorities. They are not extras, and they shouldn’t face budget cuts every time there is a shortfall.

Louisiana has long needed a constitutional convention that would allow forward-thinking people to set up a much better way of conducting business from year to year.

That need, of course, remains. But in the meantime, we have to do more to protect the state’s actual priorities - even in the face of budgetary challenges.

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, not of any individual.

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

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