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Feckless attitudes still there, hearing shows

Only in welfare-state-ridden Louisiana: even as it offers an opportunity to state prisoners seen in no other state, some obsessed legislators moan it doesn’t go far enough or does convicts a disservice.

That attitude went on full display during legislative committee hearing of HB 84 by Republican state Rep. Kenny Havard. The bill would clarify existing state law that allows inmates to work outside of corrections facilities and offices, perhaps the most famous current application of which has such individuals working in and around the Governor’s Mansion, something no other state does.

If passed, the bill would ensure marginally expanded use of the program, run directly by the Department of Corrections separately from transitional work release programs that place the incarcerated with private sector employers during the day, met legal guidelines. It made it out of committee, but not before a few Legislative Black Caucus members on the panel whined and complained about it.

These Democrats objected to what they called “free labor,” although participants draw a salary of 4 to 70 cents an hour, that took jobs from the population not incarcerated or denied them an opportunity for much higher wages. Not mincing words, state Rep. Ted James stupidly called this “modern day slavery,” and that the state should feel embarrassed doing it. State Rep. Barbara Norton called herself “offended” by the notion inmates would desire such work at such wages, and it was “unfair” to society.

Secretary of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc stressed the program design sought primarily to provide job training, perhaps unknowingly echoing apprentice wage proposals that would pay below minimum wage for a short period while people learned a job that would reduce unemployment and teach job skills, as well as to give jailbirds a break from monotonous prison life. He didn’t mention that this also saved taxpayer dollars, even as it did put a little of that into cons’ pockets.

LeBlanc also noted that this program did not take away from work release, available slots of which depend on other factors; for example, those not close to release dates could not access work release. They also could receive good time credit instead.

None of this made an impression on the thick-skulled James or Norton, who seemed to think that this privilege afforded to people who had made war on society and had a debt to repay to it that somehow it shortchanged, if not exploited, inmates through their voluntary participation in the program. Both society and participants benefit from it with no coercion involved, but these brain surgeons would axe the entire arrangement by making it cost prohibitive.

In fact, James claimed that society owed released convicts the monetary resources to make a fresh start after they got out, as if the characters of the individuals involved had nothing to do with their criminal activities and that a program to help them improve that character – including an acknowledgment of their own faults by working for peanuts to repay society – somehow served as an affront. He and Norton equated criminal activities that put people in prison as “mistakes” made by those fundamentally good at heart and intention – having nothing to do with bad character that needed modification – and so society must bend over backwards to accommodate these poor souls.

They, plus state Rep. John Bagneris, voted against it but their side lost overwhelmingly, and its passage seems assured with backing from Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards. But the nature of the opposition to it reminds that the attitudes that have retarded the state’s modernization and economic development stubbornly remain, dormant today but, like a retrovirus, could resurface and ravage at any time.

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