Overseer’s Perspective

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A law enforcement executive finally fessed up – public safety, rehabilitation and re-entry into society take a back seat to the industrial complex that incarceration has become in America!  Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator didn’t hold back during a recent press conference held in north Louisiana that focused on his opposition to Louisiana’s criminal justice overhaul plan.

Sheriff Prator made it crystal clear and, in reality, put it in the only terms that matter for some in the criminal justice system – economics.  In his statement about the 35 nonviolent offenders scheduled to be released from his jail under the state’s Justice Reinvestment Plan, Prator unabashedly said he needs these people working because they are a part of his operations budget.  “In addition to the bad ones … they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that where we save money,” he continued. “Well, they’re going to let them out ― the ones that we use in work release programs.”  In very clear terms, these words are evidence that the high rates of incarceration in the United States, and particularly in Louisiana, bring with it what can only be called slave labor.  And criminal justice officials dependent upon prison labor to fund their departments serve as overseers.

The Road to America’s New Normal

The War on Drugs is the dog whistle that makes Sheriff Prator’s posture the new normal.  This new normal didn’t suddenly happen and Sheriff Prator isn’t alone.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the country, has taken very decisive action to return to the “tough on crime” posture that criminal justice reform attempted to balance.  In his opposition to, and roll back of, several criminal justice reforms implemented by the Obama administration, AG Sessions has taken a stance that translates into continued injustice for people of color.  Like Sheriff Prator, Sessions wants people incarcerated for longer periods.  Unlike Sessions, Sheriff Prator shed the law and order cloak of political correctness – he admitted that he needed the funding.

Politicians dating back to Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon can be viewed as the architects of present day law and order politics.  Their politics laid the groundwork for then-candidate Donald J. Trumps’ declaration of himself as the law and order candidate during the 2016 presidential election season.  Then Senator Jeff Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest supporters.  Policy shifts in the criminal justice landscape can be linked to each of these politicians.   As far back as the Reagan administration, those shifts have targeted people of color.  Dr. Cornel West said, in his foreword for The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s riveting account of the American criminal justice system, that the substance of America’s shame is “the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of precious poor, black, male (and increasingly female) young people in the name of a bogus “War on Drugs”.  That targeting has displaced, and in some instances, decimated generations of families.

The effects of these policies have gone virtually unaddressed until now.  What has brought considerable attention to the devastating impact of this tough stance on crime is the cost of those policy shifts, not the resulting generational decimation.  Incarcerating so many people ultimately led to the creation of the industry that left law enforcement executives like Sheriff Prator dependent upon the free labor the incarcerated provides for the state.  Yet, there are those who stand firm in their belief that any change in the landscape is a threat to public safety.  But do people like Sheriff Prator really understand that decimation of communities through mass incarceration is, in fact, contrary to public safety?

Critics of America’s ranking as the world’s incarceration leader have long favored reform and continue to highlight the large number of underprivileged and people of color entangled in the criminal justice system.  A by-product of the incarceration of such high numbers of underprivileged is what happens when they are released.  Few step out of America’s system of state supervision with adequate tools to ensure successful re-entry into society.

Opponents of reform point to reduction in the prison population as a threat to public safety not because the system has done little in the way of rehabilitation but for fear of recidivism.  Because criminal justice officials have done little more than serve as overseers of slave labor, steep recidivism rates should come as no surprise.  Sheriff Prator’s statement, however misunderstood by the rest of us, simply confirms what advocates of reform have preached for years – the rise in prisons and prison population is largely an economic bonanza.  Louisiana, like several other states, have it right.  Greater focus must be placed (from entry to exit) on the people entangled in the criminal justice system if we are truly interested in public safety.


Reform and Reinvestment

While AG Sessions has been busy dusting off criminal justice policies from the 1970’s and 1980’s Louisiana politicians were looking at the economic burden on the state and Louisiana’s standing as the incarceration capital of the world.  They began to look behind the data.  Governor John Bel Edwards’ motivation for reform focused on reinvestment of the state’s huge incarceration bill.  In an effort to address the state’s budget woes the Governor and the Louisiana legislature created the Justice Reinvestment Task Force during its regular session in 2015.  By the 2017 regular legislative session, Louisiana had joined several other states with passage of what should be considered an historic bipartisan overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.

Maybe it’s time for AG Sessions to consider data-driven/research-based reform efforts that focus on measures that aid those released from prison re-enter society or other procedures and programs that curtail lengthy sentences, reduce recidivism rates and focus on public safety by addressing the underlying social ills.  Maybe it’s time for him to examine the impact of the absence of so many adult males from families across America.  Now is definitely the time to develop actionable plans that work in conjunction with other government and non-government organizations to develop alternative programs to mass incarceration.  Now is the time to step away from the overseer role and embrace all Americans.  He may find a pleasant surprise at the end of his tenure – increased public safety as a result of increasing access to jobs, housing, education and hope to the over-policed and undervalued.

Louisiana’s reform efforts will likely result in huge savings for the state.  The savings are slated for reinvestment into strategies that will place some focus on re-entry procedures and programs, reduce recidivism rates and, thus, increase public safety.  In addition, alternatives to incarceration will strengthen our communities and ultimately reduce the number of people entering state supervision.  Opponents say, however, that it is unlikely that the number of nonviolent offenders released as a result of these reforms would be enough to meet the reinvestment goals forecasted by the governor.  Their speculation is that more violent offenders will be released.

That seems to be the problem for people like Sheriff Prator.  Unfortunately, that is not the message he presented during his press conference.  Prator made his financial dependency upon prison labor clear (and at least implied that others in his position share his predicament).  His overseer perspective alone is enough to warrant reform across the board.