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Sex, Drugs, Prison, Education, Jindal…Ingredients to a Dying Louisiana! By Terry Young

Terry Young

Terry Young

We live in a Red State. That’s no secret. So many Louisiana residents take pride in our state’s conservative values.   Traditional notions of family, “small” government, emphasizing the importance of being business friendly, being tough on crime—violent and victimless alike—the unrestricted freedom to bear arms and the preservation of unborn children are all key tenets of this mindset.  Do these views represent all of our state? More importantly, do these priorities behoove us?

During the election cycle, I saw several state and local political ads that I found disturbing—ads that only spoke to certain citizens and made the assumption that they were speaking to Louisiana collectively.

The commercial that I found to be the most disturbing was an ad for Bill Morvant who ran unsuccessfully for the Louisiana Supreme Court. He described how he had locked up countless drug offenders and implemented rehabilitation measures so strenuous that many of the offenders chose jail time instead.

Dem-voicesHow is this a good thing? Why is it a selling point that you would rather incarcerate people than give them long term solutions to prevent drug use and live healthier lives? Then, he goes on to describe how all of the conservative business groups LOVE him.  He proudly proclaimed the he knew where the law ended and personal freedoms began, swearing that he would never let his personal opinion influence a ruling.

WELL, when you decide that you need to be “tough” on some offenders but more understanding and objective with others, then that is about subjective as you can get. Judge Morvant feels that it is more important to keep, often times, non-violent individuals under the control of the penal system but let businesses  — that have the potential to adversely impact the lives of many others — virtually do as they please.  The sad part is that this message resonated with a substantial amount of the population — whether they were business owners or not.

Speaking of the “tough on crime” mindset, it is quite odd that Louisiana has the number one incarceration rate in the nation — and by leading the U.S, we also lead the world — yet crime rates in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport (our three largest cities) show no signs of decrease.

Over the past two decades, Louisiana’s prison population has DOUBLED, costing tax payers billions of dollars. You’d think the ever cost conscious, small government advocating conservatives that often characterize our state’s politics would find this problematic.  NOPE. This is because several private businesses have a vested interest in maintaining a substantial amount of inmates. Most inmates are housed in for-profit prisons that are owned by — get this — parish sheriffs entrepreneurs. Conflict of interest much?

Making matters worse, in spite of all the money invested in the penitentiary system here in Louisiana, the inmates still live in sub-par conditions with very few opportunities for rehabilitation and self-development. I’m sure some people are reading this with a “Do The Crime. Do The Time” outlook. However, I hardly call a potential life sentence for someone who has three drug charges — regardless of the level of violence involved in the situation — proportionate.

Moreover, why is the penal system not being held accountable for efficiency like so many other state programs? Why are we not looking at the rate of deterrence?  Why are we not also investing in programs in high risk communities — mentorship, education — programs that stop crime before it even starts? I’ll go out on a limb and say that, for some, profit has taken precedent over people. The people who are getting rich off the prison system and getting cheap labor out of inmates are not the people living in the war zones in these cities so they don’t care one way or the other if murder and drug addiction decrease. That part just simply does not affect them. On top of that, those who benefit financially have immense lobbying clout (Not that they need it with the number of “law and order” legislators that we have).

Another tenet of Louisiana’s conservative infrastructure is family “values”. To be clear, I see nothing wrong with being interested in helping families. Many would argue that the leaders of this movement are members of the Louisiana Family Forum. Founded by former LSU Law professor Katherine Spaht , former Louisiana State Representative Tony Perkins and former City Court judge Darell White,  the organization’s primary focus areas are making sure marriage, in Louisiana, remains a union that only a man and a woman can enter, opposing abortion and promoting covenant marriages — a marriage in which the couple undergoes mandatory pre-marital counseling and agree to get divorced under only the most dire of circumstances.

To say that this group has misplaced values is the understatement of the century. First of all, regardless of your views on gay marriage, I cannot imagine why a group who claims to be concerned about the best interest of Louisiana’s families would prioritize regulating the activities of consenting adults over working to provide support for existing families — whatever form they come in — that need it.  Why is it more important to this group to maintain a narrow view of marriage than to fight to keep current and add new social programs designed to benefit families — i.e. healthcare and childcare services for working parents?

Secondly, how can a group of people be truly pro-life (a term that I find problematic for a number of reasons) and show no interest in children once they exit the womb? Why is it so important that each and every woman go through with each and every pregnancy if you are not going to show interest in her children or her once they are born? In case I’ve missed something, I don’t think Mrs. Spaht and company have ever been to the capitol to fight for pre and neo natal care services for Louisiana mothers. Hell, have they ever even held a march of dimes event? Furthermore, you would think that people so interested in preventing abortions would also be interested in measures that help to prevent unwanted pregnancies — i.e. comprehensive sex education. Negative.

Speaking of the issue of sex education in Louisiana, our state legislature made it clear, in 2010, that they were not having anything more than abstinence only education. I’m sure some of you are probably thinking, “well, abstinence IS the only way to guarantee that you don’t get pregnant or catch an STD, it makes sense to abstain from sex.” DUH! No one has ever argued against that. At the same time, when I think of all the people I know — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion etc. — I’d be hard pressed to count on one hand the number of them who waited or are currently waiting until marriage for sex.

Regardless of any religious dogma, anyone’s personal opinions or any other support for abstinence, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of young people are going to become sexually active before marriage — IF they get married. Thus, our youth needs to be armed with the necessary tools — and I have no problem with abstinence being presented as a possible decision — to be proactive about their own sexual health and the only way to do this is through comprehensive sex  education curriculums that promote safe sex. When our state is leading the nation in HIV/AIDS cases among 13-24 year olds, we must deal in reality — not theocratic ideals.

Perhaps, at the helm of all that is conservative in Louisiana is our Governor Bobby Jindal. He is a polarizing figure to say the very least.  Some praise him as an epic job creator while others tout that he is single handedly destroying our state’s public education system.  I would argue that there is some truth to both.

According to the governor’s official website, we can expect 51,000 new direct and indirect jobs as a result of the economic development plan that he put into play upon taking office in 2008. The part that gives me pause is that he says that jobs will be created for generations to come. Hmmm. I find that hard to believe because the primary feature that brings many of these business people to our state — notably the film industry — is tax breaks. Now who says that we will be able to afford them in ten years?

What’s that term that Governor Jindal likes to through around when rejecting federal funding for healthcare and other vital needs of our state? SUSTAINABILITY! We may experience short term job growth but how do we SUSTAIN it? Perhaps it would make more sense to foster human capital that would attract businesses to want to come here and set up shop. This could be done through investing in job training and improvements in K-12 education.

Speaking of which, Governor Jindal has put in place the largest school voucher system in the nation. The idea of empowering parents and giving them options as to where their children can go to school sounds good in theory. HOWEVER, the devil is in the details.  This program is problematic for several reasons.

First, Louisiana is a very diverse state. Private school options for parents in Baton Rouge are very different from those in my hometown of Arcadia. In this small town, there are no private schools meaning that children will have to travel several towns over to attend a private school. For parents without reliable transportation, this could be a major complication in the case of an emergency. Also, every private school is not the same. While some of them have vast resources and facilities, some private schools were simply not built to deal with a large amount of students.  If I’m not mistaken, aren’t overcrowding and high student to teacher ratio part of the reason that public schools are experiencing difficulties? Also, almost all of these schools are religious schools. This means that creationism will be taught to students — even if they practice a different faith or no faith at all. Not to mention the fact that they could miss out on key science principles that will very likely prepare them for college.

Oh no, these schools don’t get measured by the same yardstick that public schools do. They can have students with failing reading and math scores and not lose ANY funding. Am I crazy, or is this counterproductive to a mission of “reform?”

Finally, regardless of how many school vouchers you hand out, there will ALWAYS be students in the public school system. Thus, there is no getting around the need to fix them. Do solutions necessarily have to be financial? Not at all. However, public schools cannot be ignored. Period.

In our state, it is no doubt that conservatism is a strong force. It may very well represent the values of the majority. However, the value of the majority and the best interest of the state are two entirely different things. We cannot keep measuring our state’s well-being by how easy wealthy business owners find it to set up shop here when we are faced with a 21.6 percent poverty rate.  We cannot keep allowing archaic moral compasses to continue to impede the conversation needed to deal with a growing epidemic.  We can’t let our justice system be run by those who have any interests other than keeping us safe. It’s time to face the fact that conservatism—fiscal, legal and social—are just not working for Louisiana.

Terry Young is a Graduate student at Louisiana State University. If you would like to reply to this blog, or would like to contact Terry Young, please send an email to venese.morgan@gmail.com.

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Originally published: Nov 27, 2012