Decency demands we take no chances with the death penalty

By Robert Mann

The chance a terrorist will hijack my next flight to Atlanta is infinitesimal, but I will submit to a virtual strip search when I board that plane. And I’ll do it every time to gain the assurance I’ve dodged one of the rarest transportation calamities.

Many of us take similar precautions every day to prevent other unlikely occurrences. We pay a premium for safety features on new cars. We gobble multivitamins and dietary supplements to ward off diseases we have little chance of contracting. We part with thousands for alarm systems and even more for car and home insurance.

Our predilection to limiting the risk of rare misfortune extends to almost every aspect of life. Except in our criminal justice system, which sometimes seems designed to eliminate the risk that a defendant might be acquitted.

 Which brings me to the death penalty and why we should abolish it, as state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, propose. I’m not sure what chance their bill has in the current legislative session, but it’s probably less than the likelihood that an innocent person sits today on Louisiana’s death row.

The chance that Louisiana — or any of the 30 other states with the death penalty — might put an innocent person on death row is four times greater than your chance of being killed in an auto accident. It’s almost 50 times greater than your chance of drowning.

How do we know this? In an impressive, comprehensive study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) in 2014, four researchers concluded 4.1 percent of those in death row prison cells in the United States are innocent. And, they added, “it is likely that we have an undercount.”

We also know this because, since 1973, 157 death-row inmates have been exonerated. The most recent was a Louisiana man, Rodricus Crawford, finally exonerated on April 17 when the state Supreme Court dismissed all charges against him.

The study’s authors said that because of intense scrutiny in capital cases, wrongful executions (versus wrongful sentencing) are rare but probable. “With an error rate at trial over 4%,” they caution, “it is all but certain that several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 [that number is now 1,448] were innocent.”

This suggests that about 116 of the approximately 2,900 peopleserving on death row in the United States could be innocent.

If you had a 4 percent (one in 25) probability of dying in a plane crash (it’s actually one in 9,821), you’d be a fool to fly anywhere. If you had a 4 percent probability of dying in a car wreck (it’s one in 645), you would never leave your house.

Too many judges and prosecutors, however, are satisfied with a 4 percent error rate in handing down death sentences.

Argue all you want about the immorality of the government killing people. Protest the death penalty because of the cost of trying and housing death-row inmates versus those sentenced to life without parole. Those and other arguments resonate with me and others but are secondary to the near certainty that we have condemned dozens of innocent people to death row.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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GOP platitudes about belt tightening are no substitute for a plan to end Louisiana’s revenue crisis

By Robert Mann

Republican leaders in the Louisiana House have much in common with their counterparts in Washington. Congressional Republicans yammered about Obamacare for years. When they got the power to repeal and replace it, however, we discovered they never considered the replace part.

Likewise, in Baton Rouge, Republicans have long grumbled about bloated government. But given the opportunity to counter Gov. John Bel Edwards’ revenue proposals with a robust austerity plan, they are even less serious than their D.C. cousins.

On Monday, urging lawmakers to consider his revenue plan, Edwards again challenged recalcitrant House Republicans to quit carping about cuts and cough up a detailed program.

“When you make those sorts of statements, you’re only telling half the story if you don’t follow them up with the next piece of the equation which spells out the consequences of what you mean — exactly what you intend to cut,” Edwards said. “What college or hospital you want to close. What road in your district you’d rather not see built or re-paved.”

What Edwards argued was simple: If you think state government needs cuts more than it needs revenue, then put those cuts on the table.

That peeved Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, who seemed to suggest House Republicans have a plan. Barras explained Republican members are supporting some of the 140 to 150 budget bills in the current fiscal session of the Legislature.

Suggesting that their backing of several non-specified bills is a cohesive budget-cutting agenda is evidence Barras believes his constituents are as dense as he is derelict.

Imagine saying you are building a house. Interested, I ask, “Can I see your plans?” You reply, “Well, I have several sets of plans.” Constructing a house is like reforming a revenue system. If you have several plans, you have no plan at all.

The reason Barras and his colleagues won’t get behind a plan of deep budget cuts is simple: They know that putting their ideology on paper — specifying which prisons, colleges, hospitals and DMV offices to shutter — won’t be popular. Better to throw stones at Edwards, label him a tax-and-spend liberal, vote down everything and use the resulting failure as fodder against him in three years.

Like his ideas or not, Edwards is the only person at the Capitol with a real plan. Barras and his crowd are empty-handed and seem willing to let the state’s fiscal misfortunes devolve into a disaster because of their pathological aversion to taxes.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Posted in John Bel Edwards, Louisiana budget, Louisiana higher education, Louisiana Politics, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Medicaid and other antipoverty programs reward work, not indolence

By Robert Mann

It’s a common delusion among some wealthy people that their success is a product of their industry and ingenuity. They regard poverty, therefore, as a consequence of indolence and ignorance. As the British journalist Walter Bagehot once observed, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people; it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”

I can understand the indifference of so many wealthy folks, particularly Republican politicians, toward the poor. What I don’t comprehend, however, is their eagerness to vilify, ridicule and punish poverty.

That’s what Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback did recently when he opposed the expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program that supports health care for low-income families. Brownback explained he vetoed the bill “because it fails to serve the truly vulnerable before the able-bodied [and] lacks work requirements to help able-bodied Kansans escape poverty.” In 2013, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed a similar slur against the poor as he opposed Medicaid expansion.

To the average person, Brownback’s and Jindal’s reasoning might make sense. Doesn’t giving health care to poor people make them reluctant to find a job with health insurance? It might, if most of those who would benefit were unemployed, which they are not.

By framing his opposition around the notion that the poor are shiftless moochers whose lethargy is to blame for their financial woes, Brownback, Jindal and others who parrot this reasoning are slandering those who live in poverty.

A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that the vast majority of Medicaid recipients (almost 80 percent) belong to working households. Sixty percent have jobs. Of those not working, all but 3 percent are sick, disabled, students, family caregivers, retired or those who can’t find work.

Medicaid expansion rewards work. In most states, those most in need of Medicaid’s expanded coverage earn too much to qualify for the existing Medicaid program, but too little to claim insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

The Medicaid debate is but one front in a conservative war against the poor who, many Republicans want you to believe, are lazy bums who need tough love far more than your charity. If you buy into this caricature, you’ve been conned.

Here’s the dirty secret the servants of the rich don’t want you to learn: Many poor people work long hours in low-wage jobs. “Among the poor between 18 and 64 who are not disabled or in school in 2014,” the Center for Poverty Research at the University California, Davis, reports, “51.8 percent worked for part of the previous year.”

It’s not that poor people are lazy; it’s often that their enormous industry is so rarely rewarded with a living wage. The game is rigged against them in so many ways.

State and local governments tax them at rates two and three times that of the wealthy. They often pay more interest for car loans, higher premiums for auto insurance and inflated fees for checking accounts. In Louisiana and elsewhere, unpaid court fees can get them tossed into jail, whereupon they often lose their jobs. In Arkansas, it’s a criminal offense to miss a rent payment.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Why is ‘justice’ such a dirty word in so many churches?

By Robert Mann

Do you ever wonder how religious leaders and those in the pews can read their Bibles and then remain silent about the scandalous injustice against the poor that our society tolerates? Why isn’t the state Capitol crawling with pastors, preachers and rabbis advocating on behalf of those afflicted by poverty? Why aren’t those same religious leaders challenging their followers to storm government institutions to demand fair treatment for the powerless?6449741467_dc1a81af70_b

Reading the Bible is sometimes difficult, but understanding what it says about justice for the poor is not. Simply put, ignoring economic and social justice should be impossible for those who take their faith seriously.

Unfortunately, the poor are all too easy to ignore.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll see a flood of commentary about how this industry or that special interest will fare in the coming fiscal session of the Louisiana Legislature. Will wealthy taxpayers pay more in income taxes? What about small businesses?

Who knows which industries and individuals will come out ahead? Your guess is as good as mine — unless you’re wondering who the big losers will be. That’s easy. It’s always the same. It’s the poor.

In Louisiana, in particular, the working poor pay 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the top 1 percent pay less than half that (4.2 percent). It’s not just that Louisiana’s tax laws are unfavorable to the working poor; it’s that we punish them with a cruel poverty surtax.

We oppress them in other ways. We offer substandard child care, housing and health care and provide dreadful legal representation when they are charged with crimes. We tolerate the usurious interest rates payday lenders impose on them.

In Louisiana, we spend about $20,000 a year to house people in prison. We spend about $10,700 a year to educate our children. In both cases, the poor get the shaft. We don’t devote the resources necessary to provide them a ticket out of poverty while giving far too many of them a free ride to the state’s penitentiary at Angola.

My wife and I have been going to Louisiana prisons for 20 years for various reasons, mostly prison ministry. Do you know how many inmates from well-to-do families I’ve met? I could count them on one hand.

“How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?” the prophet Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, warned religious people of Jerusalem more than 2,700 years ago.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Justice might be a Biblical command, but it’s a government job

By Robert Mann

Imagine you’re walking along the Mississippi River with friends when you spy a figure bobbing in the water. It’s a child. There’s no time to summon the police, so you swim to save it. Later, another child floats by — and another and another. Each time, you and your friends jump in for a rescue.

That’s what many of us do so well: Dive in to help people in need or distress when the police, fire department or other authorities aren’t around.

Perhaps you’ve encountered some variation of this child rescue story. Only, it’s sometimes used to argue against government anti-poverty programs: “The government can’t do what individuals and churches once did, which is to save people who are drowning in poverty. The government should get out of that business and let churches and people do what they’re supposed to do.”

On its face, at least, the argument stands up. Charity is sometimes better delivered by individuals and small organizations, not big government. I see a person in desperate need, and I meet that need out of my compassion. This is what churches and caring people do every day.

The problem is that the needs of society’s poor and hurting have always outrun the ability or willingness of individuals to meet them. That doesn’t mean the romantic, nostalgic longing for a bygone era of community barn-raisings and neighborly charity isn’t appealing and well-intended. It’s just not realistic — and never was — as a comprehensive solution to poverty and suffering.

And now, some conservative Christians are even insisting charity should also apply to health care for the poor. There would be no need for government programs like the Affordable Care Act, they say, if the government encouraged individuals and churches do their benevolent work.

This appears to be the sentiment behind a recent tweet by a conservative columnist, Erick Erickson: “In Matt 25, when Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians.” Never mind that Christians didn’t exist when Jesus is quoted saying that. Erickson suggests that Jesus not only failed to insist the government address poverty; he also didn’t tell his followers to help non-believers.

That’s a narrow, perverted reading of the Bible. Still, I’m willing to concede Jesus might have been addressing the individual obligation we have to those in need. But concluding government has no role in reducing poverty, based on one scripture, requires a selective reading of Jesus. And it’s a distorted view of what it means to be a person of faith, whether of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other variety.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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What the Germans could teach about banishing our Confederate statues

By Robert Mann

Last summer, while in Germany for the first time in 30 years, I was surprised to see Berliners hadn’t demanded a new name for one of their city’s prominent thoroughfares — Karl-Marx-Allee. The grand boulevard flows east from Berlin’s center, guarded on both sides by massive Soviet-era housing complexes, now private apartments.

This magnificent street and scattered fragments of the Berlin Wall are among the few reminders of the city’s communist past. Once, East Berlin was the city’s Soviet sector, an open-air prison surrounded by the world’s most notorious wall. (I walked those grim, deserted avenues one afternoon in July 1986.) Today, you will find leafy streets and hip neighborhoods that feature charming restaurants and inviting cafes.

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Berlin’s Topography of Terror, a “documentation center” on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters.

And, yet, like many cities in the American South, reminders of a violent, oppressive era remain in Germany’s public places. In some cases, such as the avenue named after communism’s intellectual father — known as Stalinallee between 1949 and 1961 — German citizens are sometimes hesitant to banish figures from their past.

In the German city of Trier, where Marx was born in 1818, residents are debating whether to accept a 20-foot-tall bronze statue of their most famous son, a gift from China.  “Karl Marx is one of the most important citizens of this city, and we should not hide him,” the city’s mayor argues.

For now, I guess, images of Marx can stay. Not so for Stalin and Hitler, although Germans do not want the public to forget them. They work hard to ensure their fellow citizens not only remember the country’s Nazi history but also understand what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.

And it’s that German way of historical preservation and interpretation that might offer American Southerners a useful model for dealing with our racist past.

The emotional debates over removing Confederate statues and memorials are often presented as a binary choice between destroying or remembering history. I know I’m tempted to suggest we pull down these monuments, haul them into the Gulf of Mexico and drop them to the murky bottom. That would be a mistake, however, just as leaving them alone is an affront to anyone dedicated to equality and human rights.

What we need is a middle way that doesn’t require banishing them to some obscure corner of our cities but uses them, instead, to educate.

Opponents of removing these statues in New Orleans and other places argue that discarding them is wrong. “If Americans continue to back down to the relentless attempts to erase our history — essentially everything that falls outside of the constantly shifting and increasingly narrow band of ideas acceptable to the modern intellectual left — there will not be merely fewer statues of Robert E. Lee and old Confederates,” journalist Jarrett Stepman argued in Breitbart last year. “There will be little of this country’s history and ideas left to protect, reflect on, and uphold.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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He may be Louisiana’s longest-serving mayor, but he’s my mentor

By Robert Mann

I’m sure when I arrived in his undergraduate economics course at Northeast Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana at Monroe) in the spring of 1978, Professor Dave Norris took little notice of me. I was a journalism student who had scant interest in economics. As I recall, I did well in his class, but only after ferocious studying.

Dave Norris

West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris (Hannah Baldwin photo, courtesy Monroe News-Star)

I knew Dave was running for mayor of West Monroe, a city in northeast Louisiana on the banks of the Ouachita River, known by many as the location for the hit TV series “Duck Dynasty.” I also knew Dave would probably win. What I didn’t know, however, was he would eventually play a large role in my life, as a constant teacher, wise mentor and loyal friend.

This Saturday night, 39 years later, I will be in Winnfield to watch as he’s inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. Dave, 74, is still mayor of West Monroe, now serving an amazing tenth and final term.

After graduation, Dave and I met again when my newspaper, the Monroe News-Star, assigned me to cover West Monroe city government. I was immediately intrigued by this dapper, dynamic leader who had begun transforming his once-sleepy hometown (population 13,000) by driving and dragging it into the 20th century.

He was a brilliant man with an easy smile, a smooth singing voice (he’s been choir director of his Methodist church for decades) and a wicked sense of humor. He was a young mayor with a Ph.D. in business administration who applied business principles to running a city. The many reforms he enacted and the new West Monroe that he helped build were — and are — impressive.

For all of his almost 40 years in office, Dave has managed a scrupulous and efficient city government. He spent taxpayer money wisely and efficiently. Creative and innovative, he improved his constituents’ quality of life in dozens of ways.

If you want an example of a city government that works well and of citizens who have faith in the integrity and goodwill of their public officials, you’d do well to study West Monroe and the long, distinguished tenure of its mayor.

Could he have been elected to Congress? I believe so. I urged him to run several times. Would he have been a remarkable governor? I know few people in public life with his unblemished record of accomplishment, who are as smart, capable and self-possessed. Among elected officials in this state, he is the one I most respect.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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