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Underling avoids recommending anything but tax hikes

As senior members of his department drop like flies, it’s become increasingly clear why Louisiana’s Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc ended up as one of the few appointees from previous Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to get the nod from Gov. John Bel Edwards to continue in his post: because he can serve as a point person to shill for Edwards’ tax-and-spend agenda.

Even as former warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary Burl Cain retired under an ethical cloud amid charges of departmental laxity in rules that favored the conduct of his that came under question, his son Nate Cain got removed as warden at Avoyelles Correctional Center, and former Deputy Secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice (which position simultaneously reports to the governor) Mary Livers retired under criticism for handling her duties, LeBlanc has kept his perch. Whether he made a grand bargain with Edwards to stump for the governor’s policy preferences in exchange for his job, he echoes the governor's call for higher taxes rather than find better ways of doing things that run counter to Edwards’ notions of retaining outsized state government.

Somewhat mirroring previous testimony in the House, to a Senate panel last week LeBlanc bemoaned the proposed 7.7 percent cut, almost halved from the version of the state’s operating budget that began in the House, of $39 million from last year’s spending plan for prisoners under state supervision. He repeated that such cuts would create dangerous conditions, said these would cause the closure of the state’s two privately-run prisons and send those prisoners to local facilities that would overcrowd those, and slash re-entry programs designed to reduce recidivism rates. He saw additional revenue raised as the only solution to prevent these moves.

If you wanted to scare people into spending more, he presented a compelling scenario. But it also rests on policy choices deliberately costing more than any other potential solutions that only take some legislative will to implement.

Most irresponsible about this preference is closing the two privately-run prisons, which are the most cost effective in the state and whose capacity is over three times the number of prisoners he said would have to find housing elsewhere. At an average savings of $25.50 a day compared to the five similar state-run joints, they save the state over $29 million annually. Considering $39 million the magic number, converting two of those five to private operations does the trick.

Further, while an exodus of about 1,000 prisoners into local jails at the low rate paid for them also would approach that monetary mark, neither would that threaten disorder. Many local facilities operate well under capacity as the state’s total prison population – even with an unusual spike upwards, the second highest in state history occurring right as budget deliberations began in April – has fallen around 5 percent since its peak a few years ago.

Finally, system reform that places greater emphasis on sentencing appropriate to crime committed, which likely would mean more probationary and diversionary actions and fewer incarcerations, and expanded re-entry usage would send more of the convicted through far less expensive pathway or keep them from coming back. Probation, for example, costs one-twentieth of incarceration.

Any mixture of these easily can find $39 million in spending reductions. Several bills filed in this legislative session can accomplish much of this, and votes of the Legislature can change sentences and can close a prison. LeBlanc’s prisoners-run-wild scenario, simply put, is by no means the only game in town to resolve budgetary difficulties.

But that would mean concentrating on making government work smarter and better, would reduce power and privilege of bureaucrats and politicians, and would cost some corrections jobs – all contrary to Edwards’ agenda of empowering government and the special interests that feed off of it. And that truth LeBlanc seems to have done his best at obscuring in his testimony to lawmakers.

So in that sense LeBlanc has served his master Edwards well. However, the course he recommends disserves Louisianans by letting them keep less of what they earn without any genuine improvement in service delivery. Legislators must turn a deaf ear to the special interests that would benefit from an oversized Corrections budget that does not pursue efficiencies.

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