Louisiana editorial roundup
Posted November 30
Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:
The Advocate on a mass shooting in the New Orleans French Quarter:
In south Louisiana, a season supposedly devoted to peace on Earth and goodwill toward men has begun with bloodshed in our streets. The weekend's violence shows how far we are from the promise of Christmas as another yuletide approaches.
Early Sunday morning, barely more than a couple of days after Thanksgiving, an argument between two visitors to Bourbon Street in New Orleans prompted a gunfight that killed 25-year-old tattoo artist Demontris Toliver and injured nine others. The incident evoked memories of a similar Bourbon Street tragedy in June 2014, when a gunfight left nine victims with bullet wounds, claiming the life of 21-year-old Hammond nursing student Brittany Thomas.
On Sunday evening in Baton Rouge, gunman Terrell Walker shot and tossed his girlfriend, April Peck, from the vehicle he was driving, then returned to the scene and injured a 17-year-old paramedic trainee and a doctor who had stopped to help Peck. Both the doctor and the EMT trainee are expected to recover, but Peck died from her injuries. Walker later died during a gunbattle with police.
How sad that Bourbon Street, a French Quarter destination defined by good times, should once again become a war zone. How tragic that Baton Rouge's Essen Lane, home to a hospital and related medical complexes, should be a place not of healing, but hatred and violence. But the biggest irony is that bullets are flying in south Louisiana as residents string lights and erect mangers to await a holiday grounded in the brotherhood of man.
The shootings obviously don't bode well for Louisiana's profile in the nation and the world, a reality that threatens the local tourism industry. That's especially troublesome in New Orleans, an iconic spot for visitors from around the globe.
But Monday morning brought a terrible reminder that indiscriminate violence isn't just a Louisiana problem. A knife-wielding man went on a rampage at Ohio State University in Columbus, injuring 10 people before dying himself.
Such incidents underscore the importance of a healthy police presence to help apprehend those who would harm us, but the simple fact is that police can't be everywhere. No official decree or legislative action can fully prevent such tragedies.
Christmas resonates in our wider civic culture, among those of many faiths and in secular society, because it speaks to a hunger we often feel for something no government policy can give us. The headlines reveal not only material poverty, but spiritual poverty, too — a cultural crisis in which too many of our fellow citizens feel disconnected from the basic human virtues that bind us to each other.
But the promise of the season is still among us, if we care to kindle it. It was evident in the first responders who arrived on Bourbon Street on Sunday to risk their lives to protect others. And it was amply demonstrated by two men — one just 17 — who stopped to help a stranger on Essen Lane in Baton Rouge and suffered for their sacrifice.
These are the heroes who hold the spirit of Christmas — now, and every day of the year.
The Courier on protecting Louisiana's natural resources:
It has been more than six years since the BP oil spill poured an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
But a recent report by a watchdog group says that thousands of smaller oil spills have left their own marks on the Gulf since the three-month BP spill finally ended in 2010.
SkyTruth's report said 11,700 spills have been claimed by industry to the federal government's regulators — which accounted for about 1 million gallons per year.
"With all these leaks and spills, it means that the infrastructure is aging," said Jonathon Henderson with the Vanishing Earth blog in an interview published by WWL-TV. "It means that there's nobody really watching. There's no entity out there day by day making sure these problems are dealt with."
The good news is that environmental experts agree that even with the large number of spills, the amount of oil being released each year — and the damage they combine to cause — is miniscule compared to the BP disaster.
"Many of the incidents that get reported are very small in nature, have very quick, immediate responses and there is no immediate impact," Gifford Briggs, with the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said to WWL.
The bad news, though, is that so many spills continue to affect the Gulf and the resilient but vulnerable food web that encompasses all of the sealife in it.
Even worse is the fact that as oil companies rely more on fracking to extract oil from beneath the Gulf, the chemicals involved in that process can spill into the water. And, unlike oil, those chemicals aren't always visible.
This is an ongoing concern, one that has challenged watchdogs and government agencies since before the BP spill.
But it is one that demands attention from those agencies and the politicians who decide on the resources they have to keep our waters safe for the humans, animals and plants that rely on them.
A probe by The Associated Press in 2015 exposed information about a continuing oil spill at a Taylor Energy well in the Gulf. The federal government was relying on information from Taylor to estimate the extent of the spill, but after the AP report, the Coast Guard increased its estimates to 20 times the original rate of leakage.
It is essential that our regulators properly and adequately oversee the industry to prevent the human and environmental damage that can result from future spills. While the spills since the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon have been much smaller than the BP spill, there is no guarantee that that string will continue to hold true.
Our natural resources are bountiful, but they must be protected. The government must do what it can to monitor activities that can damage them.
The Times-Picayune on Louisiana's prison system:
Louisiana is infamous for locking up more people per capita than any other place in the world. The state's devotion to long sentences for even nonviolent offenders has divided families unnecessarily and cost Louisiana valuable resources that could go to education, health care or other services.
Our state has the highest percentage of inmates serving life sentences without a chance of parole. Some of those inmates have never been convicted of a violent crime. That approach essentially discards people who might be rehabilitated, impoverishes families and drains the state budget. An offender who begins a life sentence in his 20s who lives to be at least 70 will cost the state roughly $1 million to incarcerate.
Of course, criminals who commit violent acts deserve serious punishment. But Louisiana routinely imprisons people who've committed minor nonviolent crimes. Many of them are held in local jails, where they get little or no rehabilitation. These inmates return to their communities with no skills and a criminal record and have little chance of getting a job. That makes it far more likely they will end up back in jail.
Despite this bleak situation, state leaders have shown little interest in comprehensive reform. Thankfully, that seems to be changing.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is making prison reform a priority. He persuaded legislators this year to "ban the box" on state job applications for unclassified positions. Under the new law, applicants no longer have to disclose felony convictions on their employment application. Checking that criminal history box can eliminate an otherwise qualified candidate without even a chance of competing for the job.
As the world leader in incarceration, Louisiana has thousands of ex-inmates who need to find jobs to support themselves and their families. Making it easier for them to find employment could help keep them from returning to prison.
Gov. Edwards has set a goal of reducing the state prison population by 5,000 inmates during this four-year term. And he seems to be gaining ground with some important supporters.
His Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc is crisscrossing the state to talk about ways to lower the state prison population. Last week, he made his pitch to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. LABI in the past had opposed "ban the box" legislation but didn't fight it this year.
John Finan, LABI's board chairman for 2016, is interested in reforms such as reducing the length of sentences and finding alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. He is president and CEO of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, a religious organization, which he said has influenced his priorities.
The conservative Family Forum could be another important ally on prison reforms. The group helped push the "ban the box" legislation through the Legislature.
"We know that our prison population is too high," said Republican state Rep. Rick Edmunds, a minister from Baton Rouge who is allied with Family Forum. "I think we have some common ground here."
Gov. Edwards is planning to release his reform package in March, and the details will determine how much support he is able to pull together. Sheriffs who make money holding state inmates in their jails aren't likely to favor anything that reduces their share of prisoners. But that shouldn't drive sentencing policy.
Louisiana put draconian sentencing laws in place decades ago in the belief that it would make the state safer. It hasn't. Then in the 1990s, with prisons overflowing, the state shifted inmates to local jails. That encouraged parishes, particularly in rural areas, to build bigger jails to bring in more state money.
"The bottom line is, if locking everybody up and throwing away the key works, then we should have the lowest crime rate in the United States. We don't," Rep. Joseph Lopinto said in arguing for sentencing reforms in 2012.
Other states, including our neighbors in Texas, are implementing reforms and adding resources for rehabilitation.
The Texas Legislature recently decriminalized truancy for juveniles, changed the way grand juries are chosen and adjusted property theft thresholds for inflation, which should lower incarceration rates within five years, according to the Texas Observer. The state already has closed three prisons and reduced its prison population by investing in a drug treatment system and providing mental health services, among other reforms over the past decade.
The crime rate has fallen there and recidivism is down as well. That is better for communities and for individual families.
With smart policy changes, Louisiana could see similar results. And just maybe we can stop being known as the state that locks everyone up.