Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Cutting incarceration rates could save taxpayers; “The Pledge” complicates state budget picture; Liftoff and Letdown: The fall of the American middle class; Charter school in name only

Cutting incarceration rates could save taxpayers
It’s hardly a secret that Louisiana leads the world in incarceration. But with state government facing seemingly endless budget shortfalls, the $760 million annual price tag for keeping nearly 40,000 people locked up is drawing criticism from some prominent quarters. This weekend New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff wrote to the Advocate  urging Louisiana to follow the lead of other conservative states that have eliminated counter-productive laws like mandatory minimum sentences:

Locking up a generation of young men for relatively minor, nonviolent infractions has turned out to be a worsening threat to public safety, not a solution. Prisons — particularly the parish prisons to which half of state-adjudicated inmates are relegated in Louisiana — are proving to be dismayingly efficient factories for the production not of safe streets, but of career criminals. Compared with state facilities, Angola among them, the parish lockups are woefully lacking in educational opportunities and other kinds of inmate rehabilitation.

Another way for the state to save money is to make sure offenders with mental health or substance-abuse issues get the help they need instead of just a prison cell. As The Advocate reported on Sunday, East Baton Rouge Parish officials are exploring this option by opening a “mental health restoration center” as an alternative to jail. Parish officials say the move is necessary to shrink prison populations and emergency room visits, which have increased since Earl K. Long Medical Center closed in 2013.

A third way for the state to reduce its incarceration costs is through more community-based programming for non-violent youth offenders. It costs an average of $127 per day to lock up a youth offender in Louisiana, according to a new report by the Justice Policy Center. That comes to $47,000 per year, which does not include massive indirect costs to taxpayers, as people who are locked up as juveniles are more likely to end up on public assistance, less likely to finish their education and more likely to commit serious crimes as adults.


“The Pledge” complicates state budget picture
As The Advocate showed in its landmark “Giving Away Louisiana” series, the Pelican State is losing billions of dollars per year through tax incentives and other giveaways that mostly benefit the wealthy and well-connected. But as Stephanie Grace explains, reining in those giveaway programs in Baton Rouge is complicated by a “taxpayer protection pledge” promulgated by Washington lobbyist Grover Norquist that’s been signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and more than two dozen state lawmakers.

These days, the pledge mostly comes up amid efforts to quantify and rein in giveaways to fracking operations, film productions, retail stores and big industrial projects. When it comes to nascent efforts to explore whether the state’s getting a good return on its investments, the Governor’s Office is generally seen as a roadblock, and the pledge is the reason why.


Liftoff and Letdown: The fall of the American middle class
Middle class workers used to have a fair stake in America’s prosperity. When the overall economy grew, middle-income workers saw their own fortunes rise through higher wages and better benefits. But that has changed over the past 25 years. Despite a soaring stock market and the addition of more than 300,000 new jobs last month, many middle class families are struggling to make ends meet. A new series by The Washington Post examines this phenomenon and searches for answers.

From the Great Depression through the 1980s, American recessions and recoveries followed a pattern: Employers shed jobs when the economy turned south but added them back quickly once it recovered. That changed in the early 1990s and worsened through the 2000s. Jobs came back more slowly, if at all. Even before the 2008 crisis, the 2000s were on track to be the weakest decade for job creation since the Labor Department started tracking the statistics. The great mystery is: What happened? Why did the economy stop boosting ordinary Americans in the way it once did?

One reason is the sharp decline in “middle-skill” jobs, such as factory and clerical work. As The Post notes:

In 1979, middle-skill jobs accounted for 57 percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy, according to calculations by David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 2009, the share was down to 46 percent. If the share had not changed over those 30 years — if it had stayed at 1979 levels — there would be 15 million more middle-skill jobs in America today. When middle-skill jobs vanish, those workers must either take low-skill jobs or compete for the fewer middle-skill jobs left. That extra competition pushes down everybody’s pay, as Ed Green has discovered.

You can click here to read part one of the series and here to read part two.


Charter school in name only
Relationships between charter schools and for-profit management companies are coming under intense scrutiny after separate audits in New York and Michigan described the arrangements as pass-throughs of public dollars to for-profit entities. It’s common for charter schools to hire for-profit management companies to manage a wide range of services, including hiring teachers, finding school buildings and handling school finances. But as ProPublica writes, “In the charter-school sector, this arrangement is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract because nearly all of a school’s public dollars – anywhere from 95 to 100 percent – is ‘swept’ into a charter-management company.” The contracts between charter schools and for-profit companies are proprietary, which leaves the public in the dark about whether millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent for educational-related purposes. Charter regulators in some states and Washington, D.C., have asked lawmakers for more legal authority to review financial arrangements between schools and management firms, but those efforts have stalled.


Number of the Day
– The percent of counties across the U.S. where the median income is lower today than it was 15 years ago (Source: The Washington Post)