Results of the Runoff: Major and Minor Changes in Louisiana Politics

People have asked me about the local races in New Orleans. Here is a brief synopsis that was also featured in Data News Weekly.

Charlie Turner @charliemichio

Can Also Be Read in Data News Weekly, 11/22/2015 Edition…

For those who did not receive 50% or more of the vote in the open-primary were subject to a ‘runoff election’. The two highest vote-getters go head to head, majority wins outright. With the exception of David Vitter, every other runoff candidate belongs to the Democratic Party.

Louisiana Governorship: John Bel Edwards Defeats David Vitter

A Democrat will be the next Governor of Louisiana, a prospect that seemed unthinkable in a state that seemed to only get redder. Statehouses all over the South seemed beyond the reach for Democrats as moderate voices disappeared in lieu of Tea-Party Republicans. When Mary Landrieu lost her senate seat in 2014, everyone was reminded of the steady GOP takeover of the American south that began with the backlash from the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

During those 2014 midterms, Sen. David Vitter appeared to be one of, if not the most, powerful politicians in Louisiana. He was a loud and disruptive force in DC who increasingly became a voice for conservatives and anti-Obama sentiment. All the while Bobby Jindal’s building absenteeism in office, controversial budget proposals and refusal to expand Medicaid seemed to make him more divisive by the day. Once the budget busted in 2015 and voters began to see Jindal as having blind Presidential ambitions, Vitter became the de facto face of the Louisiana GOP.  But ultimately, Jindal’s descent to a 20% approval rating, 55% amongst Republicans, may have been what doomed Vitter who has near identical policy views as the term-limited Governor.

Attacks on Vitter’s involvement in the DC-madam prostitution ring clearly did not help the senator’s poll numbers, but it is difficult to say if they were the main reason for his defeat considering his smooth 2010 reelection. It is possible that voters simply act on different priorities in senate races compared to gubernatorial ones. But what seems undeniable is that the Jindal administration created a desire for political change which did not bode well for Vitter.

Besides bringing a new political party to the statehouse, an Edwards Administration will bring a push for Medicaid expansion, a higher minimum wage and more investment in higher education. If Edwards can get a majority Republican state congress to cooperate is another conversation. But he has political momentum behind him as well as a willingness to challenge the network of business tax credits and industry groups that defined the Jindal administration. Edwards is far from a radical progressive but does offer a change from the tea-party politics that have defined many statehouses over the past ten years, Louisiana included.

State Senate 7th District: Troy Carter Defeats Jeff Arnold

Rep. Arnold has a reputation for being a fierce advocate for Algiers even if it meant alienating the Mayor or his colleagues. His name recognition and political following easily got him past the primary, but not enough to beat Troy Carter in the runoff. Carter is a diplomat who has been successful in passing legislation on both the state and city level. His parliamentary skills coupled with his affable persona should make him an effective senator in Baton Rouge.

State Representative 100th District: John Bagneris Defeats Alicia Plummer Clivens

Bagneris beat Clivens despite her allegations that he owes over $200,000 in tax debts. While his family name (brother of mayoral candidate Hon. Michael Bagneris) surely helped his candidacy, he is a community leader and a knowledgeable legislator in his own right.  He plans on bringing commercial centers back to NOLA East and empower traditional public schools to prevent children from having to commute to charters in other neighborhoods.

State Representative 99th District: Jimmy Harris Defeats Ray Crawford

Jimmy Harris, longtime aide to US Rep. Cedric Richmond, handily beat the politically unknown Rev. Crawford to represent large swaths of the Ninth Ward. Like many politicians representing the Lower Ninth, Harris wants to focus efforts on developing the blighted neighborhood. He supports using certain tax incentives to encourage economic activity. But with a budget deficit largely caused by generous tax credits, it may prove hard to use such a legislative tool.

Member of School Board District 1: John Brown Defeats Keith Barney

Brown gets elected to a full term on the School Board after being appointed to replace Ira Thomas who was indicted on corruption charges. The board is in the middle overhauling the fully charter school system that has faced criticism for a lack of oversight. Brown will be in a position to affect a school system teetering between private and public management.

Food Deserts: A Dangerous Lack of Choice

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Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly

With Thanksgiving approaching, people from all over the country will head to grocery stores to prepare for the US holiday. Every family has their own recipes, but just about every take of the tradition requires fruit and vegetables to make stuffing, salads- items that many in New Orleans do not have easy access to.

‘Food desert’ is a term that describes an area where residents cannot readily access affordable and fresh food. The Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are classic examples, profiled in documentaries and exposes, of neighborhoods with residents that are miles away from stores that sell fresh produce. The problem is lessened significantly for those who own cars and the gas money needed to drive to a grocery store outside of their food desert. But in a city where 30% living below the poverty line, according to the Brookings Institute, there are tens of thousands of New Orleanians who are subsequently stuck in their respective food deserts.

A Battle of Semantics

Since First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, that focuses on childhood nutrition, the issue of food scarcity is received increased attention. But with the majority of the Americans live in suburban sprawl settings, where long drives to commercial centers are common, it can be difficult to identify how many Americans are truly suffering in food desert conditions. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), overseer of everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, is the official designator in what is a food desert through the use of census data. An area is ruled a food desert if there are 500 or more individuals or 33 percent of a town’s population that reside more than one mile from a grocery store. (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The USDA’s definition of food deserts is often criticized for its vague wording. Does a small corner store or large gas station constitute as a ‘grocery store?’ Also the role of household income is not addressed. A five-mile trek for routine grocery shopping is a weekly routine for residents of affluent suburbs, but near impossible for those who live in low-income housing on the outskirts of New Orleans.

The other obstacle in establishing access to fresh produce is providing it at an affordable price. A family that lives off of less than $25,000 a year will find little reprieve in a boutique grocery store close to their home. The complexities of poverty also make it hard to calculate what constitutes as affordable food. And similarly to the problem with distance from grocery stores, anything that is difficult to quantify is also difficult to rectify.

The USDA and ‘Let’s Move’ program has dedicated $400 million towards tax incentives for grocery stores that open in food deserts. But one new store does not guarantee that low-income residents in the area have legitimate access to healthy food options. The Upper Ninth Ward is a deemed food desert where most residents shop at the Dollar General on the corner of Poland and St. Claude Avenue. But with the high-end St. Roch market opening, known for quality premade foods and farm-to-table cooking, Upper Ninth’s may no longer be deemed a food desert.

Raymond Carter, resident of the St. Roch area, does not share the ill will towards the St. Roch Market that others have, but admits that the new store is not on his radar. “It’s a nice looking building, it’s just better for me to shop other places”.

Food Deserts Mean Poor Health

The inevitable result of living in a food desert is a poor diet. Gas stations and other small storefronts provide sustenance, not a healthy lifestyle especially with children. Children who are denied a well-balanced diet are highly prone to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and poor mental health- problems that are prominent and often untreated in the black community.

Devonte, who chose to not give his last name, can only go shopping for his family if a neighbor drives him the 4 miles to the grocery store in Chalmette. For daily eating, he usually buys poboy and some ramen packages from the nearby Magnolia Gas Station to cover his lunch and dinner meals respectively. He and his friends all appear to be healthy teenagers but this is not the case for many in the Lower Ninth, and is definitely not for New Orleans’s black community as a whole. A 2012 study conducted by Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that those living in zip codes comprised predominately of African-Americans had a far greater chance of heart disease and early death. Perhaps the most troubling were zip codes encompassing Treme and the Seventh Ward, largely black neighborhoods, that had life expectancies of 54 with a 5 times greater chance to die from heart disease.

Those who are passionate about ‘food justice’, the growing social movement to combat unequal food distribution, are tired of low-income communities waiting for market forces and government assistance to combat food deserts. These activists have instead opted to build off of the progress made in urban farming, particularly in low-income areas. Sankofa Market and Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) are examples of organizations located in food deserts that are attempting to provide fresh produce to neighbors. The long-term plan is to give these neighborhoods control of their own food similarly to a rural farm community.

The goal is admittedly quixotic for Alex Goldman, staff member of OSBG, but he rejects the common perception that organic farming is elitist. “Organic farming is often seen as part of the white, rich and privileged world- and for good reason since there is a long history of those who sell arugula for $15 just because they know that there are those who will buy it if it says ‘organic’. “

OSBG staff will be quick to tell you the importance of selling their produce for a reasonable price- $8 for a bag of arugula being their standard. While the return is not as much as it perhaps could be, OSBG sees the organic food market as filled with ‘price-gouging’ practices that make the product unattainable for low-income buyers. Even worse, high price produce instill the long-term impression that this kind of food is not meant for them- a mindset that food activists besides those in OSBG have tried to combat.

After working on the OSBG farm, Devonte sees organic food as something that he will always prefer to eat. “I think everyone should learn how to grow. If the power goes off or things get bad, we’ll know how to survive.” With more studies showing the corrosive effects of pesticides and processed food, food justice activists are hoping that more resources will be allocated to provide healthy alternative to these communities that have the least choice.

 

Runoff: Vitter Vs. Edwards

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Charlie Turner Tweet: @charliemichio

Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly, a publication on African-American issues, November 4th edition.

UPDATE: Edwards leads Vitter 51% to 35% as of November 16th

The runoff election for Louisiana’s next governor will be held on November 21st between Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) and Sen. David Vitter (R), in what is arguably the state’s most important election within the last decade. If you are a one-issue voter on abortion or gun control, then this election has little value as both candidates hold the same positions on most social issues. But on healthcare, education and social equality there are serious distinctions between the two candidates. These stances are especially relevant considering that whoever inherits the $1.6 billion budget deficit will be able to decide the fate of several Louisiana universities and hospitals that may close to remedy the fiscal hole Gov. Jindal is leaving behind. Investments made by our government take years to bear fruit, so what happens now will reverberate well past a four-year term.

Funding and Support

It is surprising that Vitter almost did not make it into the runoff, (garnering only 4% points over the next GOP rival in the open primary), considering the senator’s name recognition and incredible fundraising figures. Vitter has more financial backing than all other candidates combined, a feat he accomplished by capitalizing on the unrestricted nature of US campaign finance laws after Citizens United- a Supreme Court decision that Vitter supports. In fact, Vitter has been more than just a vocal supporter of limitless corporate and union money in politics, his campaign has partaken in the tear down of regulatory walls in campaign finance. This past summer, a federal court ruled that campaign dollars for Vitter’s senate seat could be moved to the PAC supporting his gubernatorial race. The decision could easily open the door for presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, to use contributions for their respective senate seats towards ambitions for the White House. Such a coup in an already lawless campaign finance environment was made possible from Vitter’s strong ties to national GOP figures. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, the Vitter PAC in question, is managed by Charlie Spies who was an instrumental figure in establishing Mitt Romney’s fundraising apparatus in the 2012 Presidential election.

It is not hard to understand why Vitter has received such a strong backing from national GOP leaders that include John McCain, Chris Christie and others. During Vitter’s tenure in the US Senate, he has been a staunch ally of pro-business legislation as well as an effective disruptor of Democratic initiatives. For example, Vitter was the mastermind in defeating incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu by recruiting Rep. Bill Cassidy who was seen as the best option in the crucial midterm race. Vitter is undoubtedly more experienced with government, but the perception that an Edwards Administration would bring desired change could easily bring a Democratic governor.

Edwards has not served national office and is relying far more on local groups, which includes Republicans, which are tired of Gov. Jindal’s leadership and policies. While Jindal enjoyed wide support from state congress and national conservative pundits, Edwards remained a critic of the Governor’s reliance on tax breaks for big business and a refusal to increase taxes. Jindal like Vitter have both signed the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. As a result, Edwards has received the support of unions, the sheriffs department and major education officials, groups that feel threatened by looming budget cuts and see a Vitter administration as the executor.

The differences in political background have been a major point of attack for both candidates, which has unfortunately distracted from their positions on the issues, especially those concerning poverty. The most prevalent distinction is Edwards’ unconditional promise to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, a policy change that 62% of Louisiana supports. Meanwhile, Vitter’s tenure in the US House and Senate could be characterized as a roadblock for federal anti-poverty programs, Medicaid included. The Senator has derided welfare initiatives in particular, from food stamps to the Lifeline program, for being wasteful and disincentives for full-time employment. In general, the issue of economic equality and the state’s role in combatting poverty may be the largest distinction between Edwards and Vitter.

Medicaid Expansion 

Vitter has stated that he may be open to expanding the federal-state partnership program once he began his run for the statehouse, but has previous stance of opposing the acceptance of the ACA provision. In fact, there are plenty of sound bytes on Vitter’s opposition to Medicaid expansion, including an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire two years ago. The Senator viewed the provision of the Affordable Care Act as another burden on the state’s budget despite the expansion being covered by federal dollars for 10 years. Now that Vitter has softened his tone since the governor’s race, he has been able to deflect Edwards’ attacks on the issue. Vitter’s argument is that everything must be on the table, and he cannot commit to expanding Medicaid until he has executive power. Vitter has made similar qualifications on other budget issues.

Edwards has joined the majority of Louisianans in stating the moral and economic responsibility to expand Medicaid with the other 40+ states that include many Republican governors. A Medicaid expansion will not solve the immediate issues in the state’s healthcare, but would greatly help emergency room and preventive care services that are facing cuts. Whether Louisiana will be able to handle the cost of expanded Medicaid 10 years down the road is a risk that Edwards, and the majority of current governors, have decided to take.

Minimum Wage

The movement for a higher minimum wage has not caught on in Louisiana as much as other states, but polls show that a significant portion of voters support a boost at the state level. Rep. Edwards has repeatedly stated that increasing the state’s minimum wage will be a number one priority. The economic argument being that Americans on the poverty line are more likely to spend increased earnings in order to meet basic necessities.

Vitter, along with the national GOP, see the minimum wage as an artificial levy on businesses that will prevent employers from hiring. But while raising the minimum wage may cause an immediate loss of roughly 500,000 jobs, almost every study shows that the increased consumerism from a higher minimum wage will improve the economy, which in turn will generate higher employment in the long run.

Welfare Programs

The term ‘roadblock’ was used previously to describe Sen. Vitter’s views on welfare programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but that may be an understatement considering the efforts he has made to restrict federal entitlements. Vitter proposed a bill in the Senate that would mandate food stamp recipients to show a photo ID to the cashier in order to stop abuse of the program. It is difficult to see a photo ID law saving the government much money since data shows that food stamp fraud is quite rare, and has fallen to the lowest rates of all time despite the surge in enrollment after the Great Recession. The real problem with photo ID laws is that they prevent those in need from using the service, especially African Americans. According to the Brennan Center School of Justice, 1 in 4 African Americans do not possess the identification required to participate in SNAP under Vitter’s proposed law because of the cost to purchase one. Meanwhile there have been no efforts to help distribute IDs to low income residents.

But when fully examining Vitter’s record on anti-poverty initiatives it is clear that his issue is more on principle rather than what is effective. He has proposed banning convicted felons who committed certain violent crimes from government-sponsored assistance. Non-violent offenders are not exempt from his quest to limit welfare either- Vitter supports measures to require drug-testing to qualify for federal assistance for anyone in need- a proposition that not only adds another layer of bureaucracy but also implies that those who have a history of drug-use should be cut off from safety-net programs. In a state with a highest-incarceration rate in the country, it is difficult to see how barring the most vulnerable from food stamps will help a sinking economy or improve public safety. However, as Vitter’s TV commercials attest, these stances help create an image of being ‘tough on crime’.

Perhaps most concerning for Louisiana’s black community is Vitter’s support for photo ID laws in federal elections. A tactic used in North Carolina and other states, admittedly to boost GOP candidates, has been barred from Louisiana to date. But Vitter has voted for a photo ID law in the US Senate in 2007 and has stated his support for mandating that everyone purchasing an ID if they want to participate in elections.

Edwards has not had the opportunity to speak on national welfare programs as much as Vitter. But he has effectively used his support for Medicaid expansion and public education to separate himself from Vitter’s incendiary rhetoric on safety net initiatives.

It is difficult to know whether Vitter would governor Louisiana with the same tone he displayed as a US Senator. After all, one can get away with symbolic votes and partisanship in congress where colleagues can override an individual’s decisions. But as Gov. Jindal has shown us, it is far harder to hide behind ideology in the statehouse where the level of influence is simply greater. While both are the same on many social issues, the two candidates have vastly different ideas of how to handle those living under poverty- an important distinction with Louisiana still being the second poorest state in the union.

Lower Ninth Ward: The Other Housing Market

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Also can be read, here, in the Louisiana Data News Weekly 

While New Orleans is in the midst of surging real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing, the Lower Ninth Ward is struggling to repopulate what was once the largest concentration of African-American homeownership in the US.

The neighborhood landscape is filled with empty lots, once homes of those unable to return after Hurricane Katrina, which are now under state control. Often filled with wild animals and trash, these abandoned lots of land have become a lingering problem that has continued to suppress the value of neighboring properties. Since the storm, New Orleans has combatted blight like many US cities have- shifting ownership away from the static control of state government and towards those who are incentivized to care for the land the most: next door neighbors.

There has been a collage of programs to help homeowners claim the abandoned lots that they share a fence with, dozens of who live in the Lower 9th. However, the majority of residents of the Lower 9th (median income $31,582) and other economically depressed areas have largely been unable to capitalize on these investment opportunities. Despite provisions to help low-income homeowners participate in this blight reduction strategy, the process in purchasing these lots is complex and costly. As a result, the Lower 9th streets most affected by blighted land are the least likely to see them developed on, further embedding these areas in a cycle of poverty.

The lack of upward mobility can be enormously frustrating for people who see minimal improvements in the city’s historically black community. Lower 9th homeowner Dianne Polk is an example of someone who has begun to loss faith in the city’s plan, “No one cares about this place. The Mayor, the city, the President come when they need to but no reason to think things will change”. In that moment, surrounding neighbors also could not help notice that the long-awaited repaving of their streets coincided perfectly with President Obama’s Katrina anniversary visit.

Even for those more optimistic, it is near impossible to navigate between the several different blight reduction programs and funding sources without some legal expertise. People like Polk are shocked that at how hard it is for neighbors to fix these lots that are clearly a public safety hazard.

The Costs In Owning A Vacant Lot 

The ‘Lot Next Door’ (LND) is the original initiative in providing homeowners the chance to own adjacent vacant lots and is credited for elevating the city’s housing market. When the program began in 2007, provisions were included to ensure that lower-income homeowners could still participate, but a degree of financial stability was still required.

The largest obstacle people in the Lower 9th faced when partaking in LND were the rates adjacent properties were priced at. Due to a Louisiana law that prohibits the sale of any state-owned property for under ‘fair-market value’, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) has little flexibility on pricing. The ‘fair market value’ requirement prevents the city from making the most dangerous and blighted properties cheap enough to buy- as a result, many Lower 9th residents are given $10 thousand price tags for the privilege to own dilapidated structures that they have taken care of for years.

With the amount of capital required to participate in LND, it is not surprisingly that the majority of lots purchased come from areas like Lakeview (median income $80,972) that were devastated by storm but with a comparatively more affluent demographic. Conversely, low-income residents of the Lower 9th were unable to take advantage of programs like LND before the program expired in 2014. In fact, a collection of 7 residents who participated in this story admitted to not knowing anyone who actually acquired vacant property through the Lot Next Door program. The program was known just not seen.

Ten years of watching the Lower Ninth Ward get left behind has spurred lawmakers to get creative in tackling the lack of economic opportunity in their neighborhoods. State Rep. Wesley Bishop decided to address the issue head-on by proposing a bill that would allow abandoned lots in the Lower Ninth Ward to be available for $100. But because of the Louisiana law, which restricted LND, that mandates the sale of state assets at ‘fair-market value’, the $100 a lot proposal had to be voted on as a ballot initiative in the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the Louisiana electorate was unable to see the benefit of jolting the neighborhood’s real estate market and rejected the proposal.

It is impossible to know exactly why Louisiana shot the idea down, but it would be shame if it stemmed from the belief that the proposal was a ‘government handout’ since that is not the case. If passed, the bill would have mandated participants of the program to not only maintain the property, but then build a house that must be inhabited for at least 5 years. The idea was to get people moving into the neighborhood quickly.

While Rep. Bishop is disappointed that the measure failed, he sees the bill as a symbol for the city’s appetite in aggressively meeting the social inequality that plagues the Lower 9th. With the emergence of Lot Next Door 3.0 there may very well be a renewed sense of urgency. The question is if the future policies are accessible by the homeowners who need the services the most.

Complexity Of The System

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Shannon Dupree look over the remains of his neighbor’s home.

The several iterations of Lot Next Door, along with the $100 a lot proposal and other blight reduction objectives may all come together for the lawmakers who designed them. But for those on the ground it is web of red tape making it hard to distinguish between an individual’s ineligibility for the program or a bureaucratic hold-up.

Brenda Dupre, life-long Lower 9th resident, is an example of those who have heard about programs like LND but has yet to see it in action. Whether it is LND, or another program, her main priority is to get rid of the abandoned building next door to her home. The deteriorated structure is still filled with the personal effects of her pre-Katrina neighbor as well as that of drifters yet there is no movement from the city on tearing down the hazardous site.

While Dupre is happy to have survived the years of repairs and multiple robberies, the crumbling structure two-feet from her childhood home remains the “bane of her existence”. In terms of public policy, it is a perplexing that vacant lots are dealt with before condemned buildings that are havens for illicit activities. With the building being in clear violation of coding enforcement, and not available on LND property lists, she has no idea which direction to take with the city.

Her son, Shannon Dupre, does not see the logic used in pricing vacant properties. “We’re not asking for $100 alot. But the price for properties should account how badly it affects others and how long neighbors have been fixing it up. There needs to be a better formula that makes it fairer.”

Unfortunately for residents suffering from blight, there is no one agency to direct all questions towards. Convoluted property laws in Louisiana coupled with a more conservative state legislature make it hard for New Orleans to streamline revitalization efforts, especially in areas like the Lower 9th that require subsidies. But despite little progress made, local lawmakers and community leaders are optimistic that increasing homeownership is the best way to provide the economic opportunities that residents have been deprived of for so long.

Preventing Prices Out

The rapid gentrification of the city has caused concern that native New Orleans may not be able to keep up with rising rental costs in the very neighborhoods that they help reestablish after Hurricane Katrina. Historically black communities like the Seventh Ward or Central City are undergoing demographic shifts that could potentially reach the Lower 9th if the real estate market continues to spike. But if native Lower 9th folks are able to own their homes, or expand the footprint of their property, then they can avoid being priced out of their homes even if the housing market reaches New York City levels.

But for many lawmakers, concerns over gentrification seem misplaced as the Lower 9th currently sports a dismal real estate market, prompting calls for $100 land sales. Lower 9th advocate Rep. Bishop even admits that the main objective is “to provide the community with goods and services”. That said, many residents who stood by their homes when neighbors left, plan on dying on their properties and not being price out. Brenda Dupre points to a sign on her fence with the word ‘Dupree’ along with a well-designed logo. “I had to fight for this sign. Along with everything else.”

‘Pay Or Stay’ Sentencing In New Orleans

Debtors Prison alive and well in Louisiana and around the country with people facing jail time if unable to pay court fines.

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Can also be read, here, at NOLA Data News Weekly, a publication that provides coverage on issues that affect black community of New Orleans…

Debtors’ Prison is an illegal practice in the US yet people are routinely imprisoned in Louisiana because they cannot afford otherwise. The recent class action lawsuit against the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has brought national attention to how New Orleans uses fees and fines accrued in court to pay for judicial services. What is less known, is that the Orleans Municipal Court, which handles minor offenses such as marijuana possession or disturbing the peace, doles out fines at a much greater rate resulting in an ultimatum commonly referred to as ‘pay or stay’.

People facing minor charges are given the opportunity to plead guilty and pay a fine in order to go home that day. While this is an attractive option for anyone, low income defendants who make up the majority of municipal court, much of whom are homeless, often cannot to come up with the money. As a result, hundreds of individuals charged with minor, non-violent offenses end up in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison with debt still in their name.

Attorneys with Orleans Public Defenders are quick to point out that people should not fear going to jail if they are unable to pay their municipal court fine. In fact, Danny Engelberg of OPD says that fear of court fines can lead to the biggest mistake a defendant can make: missing their initial assigned court date. “It’s rare that somebody who shows up [in court] will get in trouble for not paying.” However, one missed court date can snowball into a massive amount of debt or a lengthy stint in jail.

“What really gets people in trouble is not showing back up for that hearing 30 days later. At that point, a warrant goes out for them, and the [court] will cite that person for contempt for missing court”. Once a defendant is in contempt, ‘pay or stay’ situations are more likely to arise. Contempt of Court citations come with the option of either a fine of $200 or 20 days in jail, emblematic of pressure ‘pay or stay’ sentencing places on low-income defendants.

Lauren Anderson, a public defender for municipal cases, says that once somebody has been arrested for contempt or another attachment, it is permissible for money to be accepted as a substitution for days in jail. “The court may take $300 instead of 30 days or $600 instead of 60 days. But these are people who didn’t have the money to pay the bond in the first place, they’re definitely not going to have the $300 to get out of jail… they may lose their house, they lose everything. And then they definitely can’t pay what they owed in the first place”.

If the concept of imprisonment over debt sounds like something that should be illegal, that is because it is. ‘Pay or stay’ was not only categorically rejected in a 1972 US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision but was also ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court a decade later. The Bearden vs. Georgia ruling in 1983 stated that it is in violation of Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to imprison an individual “who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay [a] fine”.

Even though imprisonment over debt is clearly outlawed, a recently released report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana details that the practice continues in the state. Within the 45-day span that the study took place, the ACLU found 12 people jailed for unpaid fines. These 12 imprisoned for their debts were hardly an aberration. An unnamed source in the report said imprisoning people who cannot pay their debts was “so common you stop noticing it.” A case that received attention from the New Orleans community was that of Dianne Jones charged with marijuana possession in 2014. Jones was order to pay $834 in court fines in a six-month period or risk arrest. She tried her best to keep up with the payment plan but still had a warrant put out for her arrest when she was late with her final payment.

After reading the stories of imprisonment over a court fine, it is perplexing how often those with the least amount of money are given large penalties in their sentence. No formal procedure is required to determine if a defendant is indigent and therefore would be unable to pay a fine. As it stands now, a judge has complete discretion in how much to fine which explains the inconsistent sentences from case to case. For example, Dianne Jones was sentenced to pay $834, while Gregory Nogess, also charged with marijuana possession in 2013, was only ordered to pay $400. Public Defender Anderson, sees no science in how a court fine is determined. “They try to get it to a round number, but every judge is different”.

The seemingly arbitrary nature of court fines becomes more disturbing with the growing allegations that judicial officials benefit from collections. Every district court in Louisiana has a ‘Judicial Expense Fund’ that comes mainly from court fines. These funds can be used for court operation costs and even renovations of the courthouse. There is clearly potential for corrupt behavior in this system. This potential became reality in 2011, when it was discovered that some criminal district judges illegally used money from collected fines to pay for their own supplemental health and dental insurance. This specific incident, while not involving municipal judges, proves that Judicial Expense Funds open the possibility of judges benefitting from their own decisions.

Despite of the controversy circling “pay or stay” it is unlikely that the practice will change anytime soon. Too much funding for the parish’s judicial system comes from the court fines administered in municipal court.   The irony is that, while court costs and fees disproportionately harm the poorest defendants, their collection is critical to ensuring that these same defendants are able to have representation in court.

The state of Louisiana provides 85% of funding for the district attorney but less than half of the public defenders budget. Beyond these contributions parishes have to finance their own legal system . It is very likely that defendants like Dianne Jones, who struggle to pay their court finds, are paying the salaries of their court appointed lawyer.

The irony becomes even crueler once Orleans Public Defenders revealed that it is deep in debt , despite the massive number of fines imposed . Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton announced that his office is facing massive furloughs and reduction in services as the 2016 budget is already projected to have a $300,000 deficit. Many at OPD see the office’s financial troubles as a result of depending on the ‘user-fee’ system as a major source of funding.   Because defendants often go to jail because of their inability to pay, it is impossible to predict how much court fines will yield in any period of time.

With the state government in fiscal trouble of its own, it is difficult to know how OPD will rebound. Major structural reform in how public defense is funded is probably needed to assure that the constitutional right of attorney is preserved. Some in the Louisiana statehouse may not want to change course, but they may not have a choice as national awareness continues to grow on the use of court fines and their disproportionate effects on people of color. Lawsuits filed against cities like Ferguson, Mo. and Montgomery, Al. have shown that the practice of using court fines to fund government programs, and incarcerate those who fail to pay, is not something unique to New Orleans. ‘Pay or stay’ arrangements have been implemented throughout US history and the defendants with the least financial and social resources, the vast majority of whom are African-American, have always been the foremost victims. It may be complicated to fund a court system. But the perverse incentives that this system creates, not to mention the illegality of ‘pay or stay’, are all reasons why financial penalties should not be relied upon to fund basic legal services.

No Minimum Wage Without Help From States

Millions of Americans have their wages illegally withheld from them, what is known as ‘wage theft’

As the push to raise the federal minimum wage gains momentum it is surprising many that millions of Americans are still receiving less than the current $7.25 standard every year. It is a sensible tactic to advocate for a Congressional bill that would raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour, or the more ambitious $15, since many economists believe to could lift 4.6 million Americans out of poverty. But even if federal legislation is considered, an annual estimate of $50 billion is illegally withheld from workers, mainly in low-wage industries, an increasingly common crime known as ‘wage theft’. Victims of wage theft are often forced to clock out while still working, worked long hours without overtime pay and in some cases not paid at all.

The surge in wage related complaints has caught the attention of President Obama who requested Congress for an additional 300 investigators to be added to the U.S Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division. In addition, labor activists have called for an increase in the penalty for wage theft perpetrators as the maximum fee currently stands at $1,100, even for repeat offenders.

But even if the President gets his wish of 1,400 USDOL investigators it is difficult for the federal bureau to monitor the 140 million+ US workers without help from the state and municipal levels. This makes it no surprise that the swell in wage-theft claims has come predominately from states with strong labor departments-California, New York and Illinois being the prime examples. In fact, a 2014 wage theft study from Economic Policy Institute, collected most of their data specifically from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

The national $50 billion national wage theft figure mentioned earlier was determined by extrapolating from the data collected mainly from New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. It is hardly scientific to use labor trends in New York City and apply them to the rest of the country. Some conservative analysts see the growth in wage-theft claims as a result of overly aggressive litigators that are commonly seen in the country’s liberal pockets.

But it is actually impossible to know if these studies represent a nationwide epidemic or not since there are 7 states that do not enforce wage or hour laws at all. Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida defer to the USDOL Wage & Hour Division if a worker is being paid less than $7.25 an hour or nothing at all. The states have their version of labor departments that are primarily tasked with maintaining the integrity of the Unemployment and Worker’s Compensation funds, and in many cases handle complaints of discrimination. While these functions are all important, workers who are denied owed pay will have to hope the federal USDOL will be able to hear their case, or to take up the matter individually in civil court, a potentially expensive alternative.

Louisiana’s History Of Wage Theft

It is a bit perplexing that these states choose not to investigate wage-theft considering that many already have a record of abuse- especially Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Luz Molina, Professor of Loyola and leader of the Workplace Justice Project, is one of the few resources day laborers have against employers who withhold wages. Her clients, predominately Latino immigrants as they tend to be the most venerable, face a costly and complex system for restitution that usually requires that the individual take their employer to court.

The US Department of Labor, has advocated for day laborers of New Orleans before but mainly for large class actions due to finite resources. If a victim of wage theft chooses to go through Louisiana state court, the filing fee is $505.50. In Orleans Parish court, the filing fee is roughly $375. Besides filing fees, there are several other costs that may arise which are nearly impossible to navigate without strong, and often costly, legal council. For example, some of Molina’s clients have employers who avoid court appearances,

“They hide from service. So you may have to hire a private process server to find this person. There are several fees that could arise”. And of course victims who do not speak Spanish have to hire their own translator since the state courts do not accommodate foreign-language services. The expensive route of litigation is disheartening enough for many wage theft victims to simply hope it does not happen again.

The amount of wage-theft and employer abuse in general has dropped significantly since the lawless days of the Katrina aftermath. The Sheriff of New Orleans decision to end immigrant detention requests, coupled with action finally taken by the USDOL against the worst contractors, helped restore some sense of regulation in the labor market. However, Molina continues to hear of cases of wage theft from clients.

Not Just An Issue For Immigrants

Without the threat of deportation, a common tactic by committers of wage-theft, native-born Americans are simply not as vulnerable to workplace abuse as immigrant laborers. But the idea that wage theft is only an issue for undocumented workers is simply not true.

In 2009, the National Employment and Labor Program produced one of largest studies on workplace abuse to find that 68 percent of surveyed workers had experienced at least one wage related violation in the previous week. A shocking finding was that female workers were much more likely to be paid less than the minimum wage than males. Undocumented immigrants were of course the most likely to be paid less than the minimum wage with 47.4% of females reporting a recent violation. But US born workers still reported a considerable level of wage theft with African Americans leading the pack at a rate of 19%- three times more than their Caucasian counterparts.

The $933 million of withheld wages that was recovered in 2012 is a massive amount that absolutely included many native-born Americans in low-wage industries. But even without the threat of deportation, native-born Americans were also unlikely to report their lost wages. In fact, annual wage theft is probably well over a billion dollars but without proper data collection only a very rough estimate can be given.

This brings us back to business & trade groups that see quadrupling of wage theft complaints within the past 12 years is an issue exaggerated by liberal organizations. It is possible that where it is easier to file a wage related complaint, like New York City, statistics on wage theft can be inflated. But then similar logic of incentives would indicate that New York City employers would be far less likely to defy wage & hour laws within a state that favors employee restitution. It is likely that wage theft is as prevalent here as in New York City; it may be more so considering Louisiana’s laissez-faire approach to labor rights.

Would an increase in the federal minimum help low-wage workers? Studies show that the answer is, yes. But no law is effective if there is no enforcement. The USDOL has had success in compensating workers, of all legal statuses, but only has the resources to see a fraction of the cases. It makes sense why progressive activists in deep-red states like Louisiana have moved away from the state level, and pushed for federal legislation on the minimum wage. That said, more stringent enforcement mechanisms for labor violations on the state level are needed in order for the minimum wage to be realized for everybody.

Congress and Americans Give the Nod To Torture

America tortures people. The debate that has ensued, not the first one in living memory, has different parameters depending on who you speak to. Supporters of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ have continued to highlight the need to leave every option on the table while also claiming that the techniques have yielded results. The opposition to the program is a bit more fracturus. Whether the program brings into question legality, efficacy or morality is something that is not completely agreed upon. First, the findings on what the practice of EIT means.

The Findings

Detainees were not more likely to give up useful information when being physically harmed- that includes Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. And KSM is hardly representative of those who were detained, in fact a large portion of detainees weren’t even affiliated with jihadism. 23% of detainees were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Pentagon. That means that even the hyper cautious over military commissions that are expected to be over zealous before just, have admitted that nearly a quarter of detainees have no connection to terrorism whatsoever.

Despite the revelations that came from the report, torture still has a considerable amount of support from political leaders. Of course, those who were directly involved or created the CIA program continue to defend the techniques as ‘enhanced interrogation’. James Mitchell, a psychologist regarded as the architect of the program, and John Brennan, CIA Director and overseer of these tactics, have gone on the record voicing their opposition to the torture report as something they see as political motivated and out of context. Their justification of EIT has not changed since the initially public discussion in the mid 2000s. The only real difference is that many of the exposed torture techniques have been chalked up to rogue CIA officers. The claim that the CIA acted independently from the White House and the President’s knowledge is heavily disputed. The report revealed that there were details from the EIT program that were not known to the President until 4 years after their implementation. However, according to the breaking coverage from the Intercept ,V P Dick Cheney, CIA Director George Tenet and Nat. Security Advisor Condelezza Rice were aware of the illegal techniques even while they claimed that intelligence agencies used ‘humane’ practices.

Ultimately, it should not matter if the President knew about the CIA program in full. The White House is responsible for what their executive agencies carry out. But it is still worth identifying the role that the White House played in the EIT program because the answer to that shifts the debate. Bush Cabinet officials and agency heads are quickly pushing the blame to lower level officials who committed illegal torture techniques without their authorization. If faceless mid-level CIA personnel acted independently, it would free White House officials from responsibility. From there, a story of isolated incidents and rogue actors is far more dismissible than a story of a corrupt institution and leadership.

Public Opinion on Torture

With so much conflicting information on who gave the orders to torture and how much elected officials knew about the program it makes polling difficult to gauge. The various polls conducted on the matter confirm that US public opinion is frayed on the issue. With any survey, semantics dictate the results- this is especially true when we can’t agree on what to call the practice in question. Respondents to a 2011 Pew poll that used the word ‘torture’ were more likely to express clear opposition to the techniques compared to those who responded to a 2013 AP poll that used the term, ‘harsh interrogation techniques’. Furthermore, there is the question on how to define a respondent’s ‘support’. If someone says that torture is justified ‘Sometimes’, does that necessarily mean that they support the program?

A study by Reed College confirms the long-standing critique of polling, which is that respondents almost never identify with absolutes. A respondent is far more likely to gravitate towards the available moderate answer even when they possess strong feelings on the matter. Broad questions will always receive broad answers, the specific questions are what can elicit one’s beliefs. This is the case with any survey, and is especially true when the definition of ‘torture’ is debatable.

So do Americans support the CIA interrogation program? It’s difficult to say for sure, but signs lead to ‘yes’. When comparing results of 2004 and 2011 Pew polls, public support of torture seems to have grown.  Despite the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report being dubbed as an historical moment, the revelations have not moved the needle of American perception.

In fact, several editorialists view the the Senate Intelligence report itself as a reason why Americans should be proud of their country instead of embarrassed. ‘What nation releases a report with such brutal self-examination? Certainly not those that the terrorists come from!’ is the general gist of the article written by Thomas Friedman. While comparing US policy to that of Middle Eastern dictatorships is probably a dangerous platform, the comments also conflate what the actions of the Senate Intelligence Committee and what their report truly is.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, a bipartisan body that was established in 1976- along with it’s House counterpart- to better monitor the executive’s branch intelligence agencies. After it was revealed that intelligence agencies were involved in the coverup of the Watergate scandal, it became clear that congress needed to monitor the CIA, FBI and NSA on a consistent basis. The SIC has been tested the most since 9/11 as the intelligence community experienced a massive expansion and a significant reduction in regulations. It is unclear how the SIC monitors intelligence agencies since these bodies answer to the executive branch. A Senator cannot give an order to a CIA official, but the SIC does have the ability to check the intelligence community. As legislators their obvious power is to pass laws that restrict their activity. However, congress has never passed any meaningful regulations on intelligence int he last 30 years. After the Edward Snowden revelations, the Senate was close to passing the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act but couldn’t get the votes, that includes SIC chair Dianne Feinstein.

The other way to check the intelligence community is to release information to the public. The scorn of the electorate has repercussions for the President, which in turn affects intelligence gathering. With the recent coverage of the CIA torture report you would think there would be political cover for such a move. But similarly to the legislative angle, the SIC has yet to declassify pertinent information- a power that the committee undoubtedly possesses.

The Senate Intelligence Committee: a history of restraint

Senate Resolution 400, the bill that founded the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1976, outlines how intelligence agencies are suppose to routinely share intelligence that is needed to make sound national security policy. The committee is most empowered by Section 8, a provision that established the process in which a committee member can declassify information that is seen to be in the public interest. Even if the executive branch (usually meaning the very intelligence agencies that are being evaluated) SIC is able to get a Senate floor vote on whether the declassification can happen or not.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem. Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem. Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee

While there are hurdles, Section 8 gives the opportunity for intelligence officials to be held accountable in the public square. However, the Senate hasn’t ever been forced to vote on declassifying information because Section 8 has never been enacted before. There have been attempts from lone SIC members to declassify information, but ultimately the committee leaders overruled the request.

So despite the controversial release of the CIA torture report, it is worth noting that the SIC did not share any information that the White House was unwilling to make public. The fact that Section 8 was not employed, coupled with the fact that nothing from the report reflects negatively on the Obama Administration, has only added to the belief by Republican congress members that the report was politically motivated.

The details of the report are gruesome but after examining the process in which the findings were released the report cannot be seen as close to comprehensive. President Obama may certainly view the Bush White House’s interrogation techniques are morally abominable. Simultaneously, the public has no clue if Obama continues to sanction EIT because the SIC refuses to challenge the Executive Branch on what can be released. Considering that the Obama Administration continues the practice of rendition, it is quite likely that torture is still committed even if in an indirect manner. To the contrary of Friedman’s claims of functional checks and balance system for intelligence agencies, the US has shown to mislead the public on it’s practices and the congress is fine with whatever information they are given.

How To Portray the Full Story of Torture

prisoners (4)
Three men recently released from Guantanamo Bay to Uruguay. Another six men have already received asylum in Uruguay in Dec 2014. Miami Herald

None of the opinion polls attempted to gauge surveyed Americans level of knowledge on the torture report. It could very well be that the surveyed Americans had no clue there was new information on the CIA torture program. And it is very likely that Americans are unaware of the Section 8 provision. It should not be expected for every American to read an congressional report most in the country have a minimal interest in politics. In theory the role of the media should be to give a thorough summary of a story, and that entails including all sides of the matter. Unfortunately, western media seldom interviews those who were held in black sites or Guantanamo. This is still the case even after three Guantanamo Bay prisoners, all of whom were detained without charges, have recently been granted asylum in Uruguay. (An accessible destination for foreign journalists). The three individuals, all of whom have legal counsel, may be advised to not speak to the media, especially American organizations. However, I doubt that the few former Guantanamo detainees are not eager to share their stories. It would be interesting to see how public polls are affected after the US hears the side of the tortured.