Nothing from nothing, leaves nothing…

From Pepper Bowen

Louisiana has a complicated relationship with her people. The latest census revealed there are only about 4.6M people in the entire state. That same census informs us that 83.4% of residents are high school graduates while 22.5% have Bachelor’s degrees. Yet, the median household income is only $45,047. That would suggest the citizens need to seek higher paying jobs. Problem is that employment site Glassdoor projects the best jobs in 2017 will be found in tech, health care, finance – meaning they require a degree (although, to be fair, on the top 50 jobs for 2017 were executive assistant and dental hygienist – neither requires more than a high school diploma).

Paying for higher education is often a challenge, but Louisiana was doing pretty well in helping residents in that way. The Advocate reported that the state spent $2.6B for TOPS, a program that paid for in-state college tuition at a public institution for residents, between 1999 and 2016. Unfortunately, in order to counter-balance the state’s financial problems, TOPS is being phased out and now 50,000 students are having to find their own funding for 60% of tuition costs – the same costs that used to be paid in full by the state.

Still there is a lot of good news to be had. As of March 2017, the state-wide unemployment rate is 5.7% and unemployment is at a ten-year low. Better still, even without TOPS, there are good paying jobs to be had. On the best paying list for careers that do not require a degree are postal service mail carriers, gaming managers, first line supervisors of correctional officers, gas-plant operators, and petroleum-pump system operators/refinery operators.

How lucky for Louisiana residents that we have a long history and strong relationship with oil & gas, gambling, and prisons.

Image from The Odyssey Online 

Image from The Odyssey Online 

Wait… what?

Yes, prisons!

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported Louisiana’s incarceration rate ranks #1 in the nation per capita at 816 per 100,000 residents compared to 471 nationally. To narrow the scope, when only adults 18 and older are considered, the rate rises to 1072 per 100,000 in Louisiana compared with 612 nationally.  In 2013 Louisiana ranked:

  • 5th nationally among states in highest violent crime rate
  • 4th lowest in percentage of adults with a high school diploma
  • 3rd highest poverty rate        

This is important because the state reports approximately 81% of incarcerated offenders do not have a high school diploma or equivalent education at intake. (Well, that’s not good.)

We are not going to revisit the symbiosis of poverty and crime, or examine the situationship between Louisiana and her citizens involving education and incarceration; especially where money is concerned. But we will look at a few facts.

Fact. According to a 2009 Pew study, 1 in 26 Louisiana adults are under correctional control, compared to 1 in 31 nationally – because whether the offender is actually incarcerated or released on parole, he is still considered part of the corrections population. 

Fact. As of December 31, 2015, Louisiana’s adult correctional population stood at 36,377, with 72,176 under probation and/or parole supervision.

Fact. Each year, approximately 18,000 offenders are released from state prisons and jails to various communities across Louisiana. However, once a person is part of the corrections population, even after having paid his or her debt to society, even the Department of Corrections acknowledges that many face the challenge of finding a place to live, obtaining employment, and accessing services and programs that will assist them to successfully reintegrate back into their community.

Those challenges include[1] some things you probably already know:

  • Inability to vote or register to vote while under any order of imprisonment – incarceration, probation, or parole - for conviction of a felony

But a long list of things you might not know are:

  • Ineligibility for Medicaid until termination of prison sentence, pardon, probation parole, or unconditional release
  • Every person convicted of felony or misdemeanor, and their entire household, may be evicted or become permanently ineligible for government/public housing assistance
  • Some licensing boards are required to revoke job/professional licenses, while others are allowed to consider a conviction as a factor in disciplining the license. Applicable to oil & gas jobs.
  • Dependents of felons are barred from receiving Veteran’s Administration disability benefits while the offender is incarcerated. Those benefits are “reduced” for the offender while his is incarcerated.
  • Denial of food stamps/SNAP benefits for 1 year from date of conviction or release for felony drug offense

Wait. What? We already talked about how SNAP benefits are intended for the folks who need it most. So how could, why would we deny these folk food access?

Well, I don’t have the answer to the rationale behind that policy decision. But I can say that Pew Charitable Trusts reports there are a number of states – 32 to be exact – that have either a full or partial ban on food assistance for folk with felony convictions. So I suppose we shouldn’t feel as if we are the only states who continue to punish ex-offenders even after they have served their time.

This legislative session, Helena Moreno has proposed a bill that would eliminate  the current restriction for ex-offenders with drug convictions, from receiving SNAP benefits during their first year following release from prison.  But since it’s really only felony drug offenders, it’s not a big deal, right? Well, here’s a fun fact: in 2015 the number of drug incarcerations accounted for 37% of total incarcerations. And this is not novel. The number of drug incarcerations has fluctuated between a low of 37% and a high of 45% annually since 1994.

To Louisiana’s credit, it is only a year suspension of benefit eligibility, meaning it’s only a partial ban as opposed to a full one - unlike Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Good news is that it gives ex-offenders time to get a job and support themselves. I mean by a year after date of release, they should be on their feet anyway, right? Except they might not be able to secure steady employment … or a place to live … so there’s that.

I don’t have stats on how many of these ex-offenders choose starvation or to turn to crime in dire situations. But I do know that the recidivism rate is unsurprisingly near 43% for those who do not find a job within 5 years - either for violating the conditions of their supervised release or for committing a new crime. However, to be fair, that is an improvement from the five-year recidivism rate in 2008 of 48%.

But we were talking about jobs.

Remember, there are still good jobs to be had in 2017 despite a recent article by CBS News citing that The World Economic Forum predicted automation will cause 5.1M job losses over the next five years. Thankfully, those jobs on the best paid list won’t be automated any time soon. Still that might not matter for anyone who has been to prison.

[1] Louisiana Justice Coalition “Now and Later: The Short and Long-Term Consequences of a Louisiana Conviction Resource for Clients” publication