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Guns are killing, not protecting, us

By Robert Mann

My LSU students had barely unpacked their bags in London in early June before the awful news landed that a shooter had killed 50 and wounded another 53 people in Orlando. What had originally been a trip to learn about Europe’s politics became a running discussion with United Kingdom, French and German acquaintances about the deplorable rate of gun violence in the United States.

The students learned much about Europe but spent too much time discussing the corrosive gun culture of the United States. By the end of the trip, as my family and I toured Scotland, we received knowing nods of sympathy when we told various Scots that we were from Baton Rouge.

Deadly news from the United States followed us wherever we went. By the end of our third day in Edinburgh, the lead story on the BCC and Sky News was the tragic deaths of three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers. Earlier, in Prague, my students and I watched as the Baton Rouge police shooting of Alton Sterling became the major news story on the continent.

Too many conversations with people along the way were some variation of this: “Why do people in the United States need so many guns? We have guns here, but only to hunt. No one needs an assault rifle to hunt.”

Not a single European citizen with whom I discussed current events – college students, hotel clerks, bus drivers, university professors and people in pubs – demonstrated the slightest bit of annoyance at being denied the “freedom” of instantaneous access to high-powered firearms. Rather, to a person, they expressed wonder at our enslavement to and acquiescence of a violent gun culture that claims tens of thousands of innocent lives each year.

Try to explain the notion of the Second Amendment to a UK citizen rightfully confused by American gun worshippers asserting the God-given right to own semi-automatic assault weapons while simultaneously (and hypocritically) praising the “right to life” movement.

People in England, Scotland, France, Germany and other European countries accept sensible laws that restrict gun ownership to those who prove they need them for sport or, in rare cases, for self-protection.

For instance, in the UK, potential gun owners must first obtain a shotgun or firearm certificate from local police. That means demonstrating the ability to safely store the gun and no history of criminal convictions, mental illness, depression or alcohol and drug abuse. As a result, England has had only one mass shooting since beefed-up gun control regulations were enacted in 1997. (As the owner of several shotguns, I would happily submit to such scrutiny.)

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Baton Rouge needs love, creative nonviolence

By Robert Mann

Was John Lennon right when he and The Beatles sang, “All You Need is Love”? In light of recent events in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, prescribing an anodyne dose of love might seem woefully insufficient. Surely love, alone, cannot eradicate war, ignorance and hatred, can it?

Maybe in this nuclear age, it’s naive to argue that love is the most powerful force in the universe. But I know people of every faith (and many who profess no religion at all) who hold that love can conquer all. If you are a Christian, you likely believe that love conquered death itself. If so, couldn’t it overcome violence and hatred?

I am awed by the witness of those who have seen and endured some of the worst violence and torture and, yet, responded with love, not hate.

Gandhi, who would die from an assassin’s bullet in 1948, wrote in 1931, “Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders.”

Some thought him naive, but Gandhi’s steadfast commitment to creative non-violence (a form of love) helped India throw off the shackles of British colonialism.

One of Gandhi’s devoted students, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was a passionate evangelist for using love and creative nonviolence to transform the hearts and actions of his adversaries. “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself,” King said in 1967, “and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Continue reading at this link. 

A moment of crisis, opportunity for Louisiana’s criminal justice system

By Robert Mann

Would it be wise for Louisiana to stick a petty thief in prison for five years for swiping $31 of candy? Of course not. That would be counterproductive and a ridiculous waste of scarce state funds.

Therefore, it may not surprise you that Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office has proposed just such a sentence for a New Orleans candy bar bandit. As Cannizaro’s questionable judgment suggests, Louisiana’s criminal justice system is broken.

More on the candy theft later, but it is heartening that cases like it have brought Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana’s Legislature together on one issue, at least. Most agree that our criminal laws are an outdated mess and are responsible for Louisiana’s shameful distinction as the state with the country’s highest incarceration rate — 108 percent higher (in 2014) than the national average.

Our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. The number of state inmates ballooned by 35 percent over the past two decades. Far too many (more than half in 2014) sit in poorly staffed parish jails, many of them lacking services that might qualify as true “corrections.”

Years of budget cuts to the state’s Department of Corrections have damaged an already threadbare institution, arguably one of the most important in state government. (Do we really want the people who guard violent offenders to make do with less?)

The situation is worse in local prisons. The powerful Louisiana Sheriff’s Association is addicted to the $24.39 a day its members receive for housing state inmates (that may drop by $2 after budget cuts imposed by lawmakers this summer). Those cheap rates mean that many state inmates in local jails receive nothing like the medical, psychological and rehabilitation services offered at the state prison at Angola or other state-run institutions.

None of this makes us safer, by the way. Louisiana has the nation’s third-highest overall crime rate and among the nation’s highest violent crime rates.

All signs point to a moment of crisis in corrections. Thankfully, it could also be a moment of opportunity. That’s the approach that Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers in both parties appear to be taking.

In the recent regular legislative session, Edwards signed legislation to stop the state from sending 17-year-old offenders into adult prisons, diverting them, instead, to the juvenile justice system. And last year, lawmakers created the bipartisan Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which will soon propose sentencing and corrections policy reforms for consideration during the 2017 legislative session.

Continue reading at this link.

Louisiana’s private and parish prisons are little more than warehouses


 

By Robert Mann

Charles Dickens might find it familiar and, in some ways, as hopeless as the prisons and workhouses of 19th century England. The privately operated Winn Correctional Center near Winnfield is the subject of a troubling five-part investigative series by Mother Jones magazine in its current edition. Reporter Shane Bauer worked there for four months as a correctional officer in 2014-15. This series chronicles his experiences, as well as the sad state of private prisons in Louisiana and the United States.

While captivated by Bauer’s intrepid work, I have rarely been so depressed by a piece of investigative journalism. Bauer describes a hopeless, renegade institution, devoid of compassion and decency.

When Bauer worked there, Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operated the prison but lost its contract with the state in 2015 to LaSalle Corrections of Ruston. Let’s hope LaSalle runs a tighter ship than that which Bauer described.

As portrayed by Bauer, Winn, which houses more than 1,500 state inmates, was a dangerous place. CCA hired correctional officers after little or no vetting, he writes. When he applied, Bauer says he listed his employer on his application form as “Foundation for National Progress” (the entity that owns the magazine). He said CCA hired him as a $9-an-hour cadet in less than 24 hours, never bothering to question him about a teenage arrest for shoplifting.

Bauer describes a prison barely under CCA’s control. “Often, the only guard in a 352-inmate unit are the two officers and the key officer,” he wrote. “There is supposed to be an officer controlling the gate that connects each unit walk to the main unit, but often there isn’t.

“From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, every unit should have two case managers, who manage rehabilitation and re-entry program, two corrections counselors, who are in charge of resolving inmates’ daily issues, and a unit manager, who supervises everything. Not once do I see all these positions filled in a unit.” Bauer surreptitiously recorded and photographed much of what he observed and said he witnessed “corners cut daily.”

The concerns that you and I should have with this are many. First, it suggests that Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) officials were paying insufficient attention to Winn’s operation. That raises questions about procedures at dozens of parish prisons across Louisiana, where 75.5 percent of parish prison beds are occupied by state inmates (the highest percentage in the nation), all housed for less than $25 a day. “Lock and feed is what I call it,” DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc candidly told a reporter recently.

Spend 20 minutes reading any one of Bauer’s stories and tell me if you feel comfortable knowing that people convicted of violent acts were supervised in such a cavalier fashion.

And, if like me, you also care about the rehabilitation of inmates the state will some day release into society, you should be troubled by the near-total absence of reentry programs and health and psychological services that Louisiana normally provides for inmates at state-run institutions, like Angola. “The big recreation yard sits empty most of the time,” Bauer wrote, explains. “There aren’t enough guards to watch over it.”

After his four months were up, Bauer says he spent more than a year continuing his investigation. CCA, for the record, denied or explained away almost every disturbing incident described in his report.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Louisiana’s state universities will soon be public in name only

By Robert Mann

Their months-long “search” for cuts to solve the state’s budget crisis is over and Louisiana’s House Republicans came up with nothing. Well, that’s not exactly right. They did dredge up some valuable-but-specious talking points to further their transformation of Louisiana public colleges and universities into publicly owned, privately funded institutions.

The so-called fiscal conservatives didn’t need specific budget cuts (or new revenue) once they had their talking points. Actually, calling them “talking points” is generous. What they tossed around was the dependable conservative propaganda that state government is bloated.

The only way to force bureaucrats to cut the fat, the reasoning goes, is to slash their budgets. Or, as some Republican leaders put it, the bureaucrats must find “efficiencies.”

Funny thing about such reasoning: Lawmakers proposed few “efficiencies,” certainly not enough to close the budget shortfall. Worse, their fervor for cuts has never applied to the House or Senate, which must be the most efficient state institutions ever.

While lawmakers slashed funding for higher education and health care during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, legislative spending soared to $108.3 million in 2014-15 from $86.6 million in the 2008-09 budget – a 25 percent increase. (Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed a $17.6 million cut for the Legislature in his 2017 budget.)

The hypocrisy of all this “efficiencies” piffle bears repeating: Over the past eight years, lawmakers cut Louisiana’s higher education budget by hundreds of millions (in the last six years alone, legislators slashed 55 percent of LSU’s general fund appropriations) but increased their institution’s funding by a fourth.

The schools’ response to the severe budget cuts is well known. They laid off faculty and staff, killed degree programs and delayed maintenance and repairs. With legislators’ approval, they drastically increased tuition and fees.

Earlier this year there was even talk of shuttering some universities, including Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. The way things are going, some schools might disappear, but even that radical “efficiency” wouldn’t close the state’s $600 million budget shortfall. Nicholls gets a whopping $16 million in state appropriations, down from $36 million in 2008-09.

Nicholls, like the rest of the state’s universities, is well on its way to becoming a public institution in name only.

If you think slowly starving higher education bothers Republican leaders, you’d be wrong. In fact, it aligns nicely with their anti-education agenda and explains why so many of them went along with Jindal and continue doing his destructive work.

And while they claim they oppose tax increases, they very much favor imposing large tax increases on Louisiana families via higher tuition and fees. And they capped and then cut the state’s tuition assistance program (TOPS), making it ever harder for thousands of young people from low- and middle-income families to afford college.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

I have some questions for Louisiana’s congressional Republicans 

By Robert Mann

Let’s get right to it: Your national party will nominate an unabashed racist, Donald Trump, for president. Why do you support that racist?

I know you’ve been lying low lately, but you cannot slink away from your endorsement of Trump. On May 5, the Louisiana Republican Party issued a statement by state chair Roger Villere and the Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation, except for Rep. Garret Graves (he later endorsed Trump). Your statement said, in part:

“The Republican Party of Louisiana congratulates Donald Trump on becoming the presumptive Republican nominee. We urge all Republicans to now unite in order to defeat Hillary Clinton in November … The stakes are too high to hand over the keys to the White House to another far-left Democrat.”

Do you really believe electing a so-called “far-left Democrat” is worse than handing the White House to a racist Republican?

Surely you knew who you were endorsing, right? If you missed the news, here’s a brief primer:

  • Trump was the nation’s leading “birther” in 2011-12, proclaiming that President Barack Obama was not an American and was born in Kenya. Trump also suggested Obama might be a Muslim. Last year, Trump expressed doubts Obama is a citizen.
  • When he launched his presidential campaign, Trump attacked an entire class of people – Mexican immigrants – labeling them as drug dealers, criminals and “rapists.”

  • He’s proposed banning Muslims from traveling to the United States.

  • Last weekend, Trump said the federal judge presiding over the fraud lawsuit against the so-called “Trump University,” Gonzalo Curiel, could not be fair to him because he “is Mexican.”

“I’m building a wall,” Trump said of Curiel’s alleged inability to be impartial. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Bernie Sanders, the not-so-social Democrats and the not-so-democratic Socialists

By Seán Patrick Donlan

As the California Democratic primary finally, mercifully, approaches, the drama intensifies. At this point, that tension has little to do with the procedures by which the party selects its presidential candidate. Their nominee was already decided as a practical matter by a clear majority of voters and delegates over the last few months. By collecting additional delegates at this weekend’s primaries in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and winning the New Jersey primary only hours in advance of the results in California, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s lead, including publicly committed super delegates, will be insurmountable.

The real drama over the next few days concerns just how much Sen. Bernie Sanders is willing to continue to undermine the party’s prospects of a victory over Donald Trump and down ticket Republicans caught in the bumpy slipstream of his inflated ego. While eking out a win in California would further embolden Sanders, it won’t change anything. It’s true that super-delegates only formally cast their votes at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia next month. But Sanders’ hopes of convincing them to switch their allegiance to him in significant numbers is deeply delusional, not least given the contempt he’s shown the party and the damage he’s inflicted on the frontrunner.

How can we lose when we’re so sincere?!

There’s an old Peanuts comic strip from the early 1960s that starts, as so many began and ended, with Charlie Brown sulking: baseball cap on, bat in hand. “Good Grief,” he groans. Stopping and looking to the heavens, he exclaims, “One hundred and eighty-four to nothing!” “I don’t understand it …” he says, before carrying on: “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?!”

It’s difficult not to imagine that Bernie Sanders and his supporters feel the same way. He is a good man. They are largely decent people. But lacking a majority of voters or delegates, both continue to convince themselves that they possess a monopoly on public virtue. Confusing their sincerity with political savvy and their passion with policy nous, they bemoan an incomprehensible loss to someone they don’t respect, despite her long service to progressive causes.

In fairness to Sanders and his flatterers, they weren’t shut out or blown out as Charlie Brown’s team so often was. They put up a good fight despite the weakness of their star player. They moved the debate further to the Left and there remains the real possibility of future victories beyond this electoral cycle. But if that’s to happen, these sophomoric socialists desperately need to snap out of the stupor, the fantasies and false consciousness, into which they’ve fallen. Continue reading “Bernie Sanders, the not-so-social Democrats and the not-so-democratic Socialists”

Does Hillary Clinton need an extreme personality makeover?

Not long after I became press secretary for U.S. Sen. Russell Long in 1985, one of his old friends, former U.S. Rep. Joe D. Waggonner, gave me some advice. “Russell is 66,” the retired Shreveport-area congressman reminded me. “Don’t try to change him. He is what he is. Work with what you got.”

That was wise counsel. Waggonner knew that a cocky, 26-year-old former political writer might think he knew more about press relations than a man who had served in the Senate since 1948. Indeed, I sometimes thought I could teach the old dog new tricks. What I quickly learned was that Waggonner was right. I might nibble around the edges, but it was no use trying to turn Long into something he was not. His personality was set. During 36 years in Congress, he had managed nicely without the benefit of my sterling counsel.

My conversation with Waggonner came to mind this week as Hillary Clinton’s troubles with Donald Trump continued making news. If you believe the polls, the race between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees is a toss-up. Some Clinton supporters – and others simply terrified of a Trump presidency – are offering advice for turning around her campaign.

There is no question she could perform better. For evidence, look no further than her continuing struggles with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won’t win the nomination, but continues to highlight her personal and political shortcomings.

Then, there’s the criticism that Clinton simply isn’t “authentic” enough. In December 2014, I was among those who critiqued her as “wooden in manner and instinctively cautious and guarded. I’m not sure who she inspires, but it’s not me.” I’m not the first or last to note this obvious fact.

Others criticize Clinton because she is not lighthearted. “Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?” New York Times columnist David Brooks asked recently. “We know what Obama does for fun – golf, basketball, etc. We know, unfortunately, what Trump does for fun.

“But when people talk about Clinton, they tend to talk of her exclusively in professional terms,” Brooks added. In other words, she is one dimensional, “industrious, calculated, goal-oriented, distrustful.”

Others are brutally specific. In Mother Jones magazine, writer Kevin Drum criticized the quality of Clinton’s voice, an attack Trump has also leveled. Drum quoted a friend, with whom he agreed: “Listen, I like Hillary a lot but she has got to stop this shouting bull—-. It comes across as insincere and phony.” Drum added: “The shouting is part of it but the other part (in victory speeches and ordinary stump speeches) is that she never has anything remotely interesting to say.”

Even some Clinton staffers have worried to reporters about their candidate’s personality challenges. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that Clinton had hired a former aide to First Lady Michelle Obama to oversee an image rehab. As reporter Amy Chozick noted, “Mrs. Clinton must try to show voters a self-effacing, warm and funny side that her friends say reflects who she really is. In short, she must counteract an impression that she is just ‘likeable enough,’ as Obama famously quipped in 2008.

You get the idea: The received wisdom among pundits and political experts is that Clinton needs an extreme personality makeover.

Perhaps, but there are profound problems with such advice.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

When will some churches stop treating transgender people as modern-day lepers?

By Robert Mann

Theodore Parker, the 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist, was right: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” History takes a circuitous route, but it inexorably gravitates toward acknowledging the dignity and inherent worth of every person. Fitfully – and with some maddening steps backward – minorities, immigrants, refugees and other marginalized people will continue to earn greater rights and wider public acceptance.

And, eventually, perhaps 10 years hence, we will glance back at today’s nasty, politically motivated struggle over transgender rights and ask, “What, exactly, did we fight about?”

I’ve given up hope that Louisiana’s political leaders will soon muster the courage to “bend toward justice” on LGBT issues. That’s one reason, as a person of faith, I find it particularly tragic that so many religious leaders lack the fortitude to lead their flocks towards greater acceptance of gay and transgender individuals. And I’m not talking about hate mongers in the style of Tony Perkins, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson.

In many churches, you’ll find pastors who regard themselves as something like progressives simply because they deliver anodyne sermonettes about the Biblical imperative to love everyone. These admonitions, unfortunately, too often come in the spirit of the old saying, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

These lessons usually feature the “normal,” accepted ones versus “the sinners” – those degenerates whom God loves in spite of abhorring their “lifestyle.” We must love these people, parishioners are told, but that doesn’t mean literally embracing them. Like the Levite and the priest in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, too many churches regard society’s injured and marginalized as lovable, but only in the abstract. In the religious world, they are often our modern-day lepers, thus the recent irrational fear of transgender people entering the “wrong” bathroom.

It’s beyond tragic that gay, lesbian and transgender people often find no place of comfort in their faith communities. Certainly, many churches have embraced LGBT individuals. The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Reform Jewish Movement and the Unitarians, to name a few, not only perform same-sex weddings; they have also ordained LGBT pastors or rabbis. These are, however, still a minority.

The Roman Catholic Church, most Baptist churches, the Mormons and my own United Methodist Church persist in officially characterizing homosexuality as a sinful lifestyle choice.

Thankfully, my despair over the loveless “love” evinced by so many religious types sometimes gives way to gleams of hope. Over the past week, I had a glimpse into what I pray is the future of the church universal after stumbling across two eloquent columns written by Baptist preachers, one in Dallas and the other in Mississippi. Both demonstrated the spirit our faith communities desperately need – a commitment to share the good news that God doesn’t simply accept us; he pursues and embraces us. Yes, that mean even gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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