What's Goin' On?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana. St. Paul, Minnesota. Dallas, Texas. The tragic events of this week have the entire country and much of the world in an uproar over the intractable problems of violence on the streets of our cities. Twenty years ago Pierce and Shows founding partner Jimmy Pierce wrote a column in our client newsletter, the Pierce and Shows Post Script, which I believe is as timely and powerful today as it was twenty long years ago. Jimmy mentioned Roscoe Brister and Tyris Wilkerson when he spoke of street violence in 1996. To update those references, Tyris Wilkerson was killed by Baton Rouge police officers in late July of 2013 after a car chase. The officers reported that Wilkerson steered his fleeing vehicle towards officers before the shots that killed him were fired. The 1996 stabbing incident that claimed the life of Roscoe Brister occurred two miles from the location of the Alton Sterling shooting death of Tuesday morning.

The thoughts shared and the questions posed by Jimmy Pierce in 1996 are as powerful and pertinent today as they were then. In 2016, we must ask, is this the best our society and our leaders can do on these issues?

I am reproducing that column here in its entirety so that we can once again read those words, give thought to these ideas, and reflect upon how the problem has grown in the twenty years since Jimmy’s words were first published. Be safe out there, and keep your loved ones close.

Chris Shows

From the Desk of Jimmy Pierce

Originally published in Pierce & Shows post Script, Spring 1996

Mother, Mother, there's too many of you cryin'

Brother, Brother, Brother, there's far too many of you dyin'

You know we've got to find a way, to bring some lovin' here today

Father, Father, we don't need to escalate ... You see, war is not the answer.

For only love can conquer hate

You know we've got to find a way to bring some lovin' here today.,.

What's going on?

Marvin Gaye sang those words over 25 years ago - but they still seem as appropriate today (maybe more so) as they were back in the 70's. Whether I'm reading the morning paper, or watching the 10 o'clock news, I find myself more and more reluctant to hear "what's goin' on" in Baton Rouge today, as more and more often I seem to hear the names of friends and clients who get caught in the crossfire of life out there - often literally.

And so I was watching the 10 o'clock evening news on Thursday, March 14, and saw the usual yellow police crime scene tape, this time at the Burger King on Chippewa, and heard about a stabbing - then they said the victim was Roscoe Brister. I jumped up from the couch, not believing what I'd heard . . . Roscoe always reminded me of my grandfather on my mother's side, Benjamin Dickens - the man we always called Granddaddy Dutch. Roscoe, like my grandfather, was as gentle and kind a person as you would ever want to meet. If he ever did anybody wrong. I never knew it and here he was, dead, gone over to the other side.

Another client and friend, Tyris Wilkerson, is making the news now. And the news about Tyris, just like the news about Roscoe, is not good. Charged with second-degree murder for allegedly killing a man during a robbery, Tyris is the first child in the parish, and perhaps in the state, to go to trial under a new law that allows 14-year-olds to be tried as adults for murder and other serious crimes. He was convicted, and he now faces the possibility of imprisonment until he is 31. Life has not been easy for Tyris. Let's hope and pray that, if this occurs, life will somehow be better for Tyris in 16 years, when he gets out of prison.

What's goin' on?

Marvin Gaye, the man with the golden voice, can't tell us. He was killed 12 years after he wrote that wonderful song by his own gun . . . by his own father - the man to whom he dedicated the album. We all were shocked and saddened to hear that story back in 1983. How could it have happened?

What seemed such a shock to us all then seems all too commonplace today. Drugs, guns, violence - It's a way of life for a lot of young people today. A social scientist who has surveyed North Baton Rouge children and teenagers says that these kids are showing the same kinds of stress and emotional turmoil that kids in war zones suffer from - like the children in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the children in Vietnam back in the 60's. No surprise, when over 50% of these children have either seen a friend get shot or seen a drive-by shooting, and have had to run for cover themselves to keep from getting shot. And the juvenile arrest statistics are startling: robbery arrests tripled from '89 to '92, rape arrests more than doubled from '89 to '94, and arrests for murder rose by over 500% from '91 to '94. William Raspberry, the columnist whose writing appears in the daily paper every week or so, wrote a column a few years back about the ever increasing rise in youth violence and drugs. He says the increase coincides with the increase in another statistic, an increase that goes back to the early 70's - the increase in the number of households without both parents to raise the kids. This makes some sense - who wouldn't agree that it really does take two loving, dedicated parents to have enough energy and stamina to raise children well in today's society?

But there is surely more to the problem than this. Guns are part of it… most of us agree that there are too many guns around, causing too many killings, of too many innocent people. I read recently that the murder rate today is 50% higher than it was in the 'Wild West" of the U.S. during the last century, and, yes, Louisiana is one of 6 states with more deaths by guns than by car accidents. The truth is, a lot of people who are dead today would still be with us if there just simply had not been a gun handy with a bullet in it - a trigger can so easily be pulled in a single out-of-control moment.

And drugs are part of it - back in the 50's and 60's, when I was growing up, drugs were something that heroin addicts in some big city somewhere knew about. Now it's something all of our children know about, and many of our children either see, use, buy or sell every day. But are these causes of the problem, or just symptoms of the problem?

Probably the truth is that guns, drugs and violence are both symptoms and part of the problem as well. Certainly the problem, whatever its root causes, is complicated by the fact that guns and drugs are everywhere, and that violence has become a part of our lives that too many of us just simply accept.

I think there are other pieces to the puzzle that help explain why we are where we are today with the ever increasing levels of drugs, guns and violence in our neighborhoods and among our children. Try the lack of meaningful jobs around for starters. I was told recently that more money was spent on the pay of our congressional representatives in the month the government was shut down than would be paid to all the workers in the country who would be affected if the minimum wage were to be raised to the level currently being debated in Congress. And even if you are lucky enough to get a minimum wage job, try raising a family on that money! For kids getting into the workforce today, it's not too hard to see that the temptation of easy money in the drug business is a lot to resist, especially when the alternative is often no job at all. But the sad truth is that while a few kids may make a lot of money in the drug business, and lead a fast and exciting (and often brief) life doing that, the result is that our neighborhoods, and children, are getting poisoned and destroyed from the inside-out by the "drug problem".

Our educational system all too often doesn't really prepare the kids to realistically enter the workforce. One big reason: funding - by the time the money flows around the legislature for this and that, there never is much left over for our schools and our children. The dropout rate in Louisiana's high schools is incredibly high, and those that graduate often do so without the basic skills we all used to take for granted just plain reading, writing and arithmetic.

So the gap between the haves and the have-nots, between the rich and the poor in this country, keeps on growing. During the 80's, the income for the people in the top half of the population continued to grow, while the income for the people in the bottom half continued to fall.

What can we do? Well, I think that the most immediate answer is in the question. The emphasis is on what we can do. President John F. Kennedy once said "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". If we wait for the government, or someone else, to do it, who knows when it would get done, what would get done, or whether anything would get done at all. The only thing any of us can absolutely control is what we, ourselves, actually do, or fail to do. I can't tell anyone what they can or should do, but I believe these things: Children, from babies to teenagers, learn from us, their parents. They look to us for guidance about what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. If we show them a world of drugs, guns and violence, and show them no other way, they will assume they have no choices. As long as we do nothing, and assume that we can't do anything, then our children will see this in us, assume that nothing will ever change, and nothing ever will. I wish I had some fantastic quick-fix answers, but I don't. But the truth is, all the great social changes that have occurred in the world have been the result of individual people taking charge of their own lives, and doing whatever they themselves could do to make the situation better.

So, I'd like to dedicate this newsletter to Roscoe and Tyris, and all the others we all know whose lives have been taken away or otherwise directly affected by the guns, drugs and violence that passes for life on the streets in the '90's. May we all be able to do something to turn the tide back around.

Perhaps Eldridge Cleaver said it best in San Francisco, back in 1968 - "You're either part of the solution, or part of the problem". If we do nothing, we're part of the problem - if we do something, anything - just the best we can, by our children, families, friends and neighbors, - at every turn of the way, and at every opportunity we have - then we will be part of the solution .and if everyone does the best they can, the tide can be turned around, and sent back out to sea.

 

Who’s in Charge Here?

Governor Bobby Jindal brings Rhodes scholar credentials to the Governor’s office, as well as health care experience dating to his days as youngest-ever DHH secretary during the administration of Governor Mike Foster. Some in Louisiana were optimistic in looking forward to the “reform” administration of Governor Jindal, though that sentiment seems to have largely disappeared in the current term. Fiscally, the administration has never gotten the State onto firm financial footing since repealing the Stelly Plan and declining to address the structural problems and fundamental shortcomings that re-appeared when the Stelly tax swap device was taken down. As a result, we have seen a protracted pattern of budget cuts to various agencies and departments, often drastic cuts which come down in the middle of the fiscal year when a shortfall is “suddenly discovered.” The problems are severe enough that the 2013 Legislature abandoned its long-held subservience to the executive branch and finally rejected the Governor’s budget proposals in large part, eventually passing a compromise budget which moderated some of the more draconian cuts originating in a Governor’s office that seems to have little contact with or sympathy for the working people of this State.

The ethics reform that was purportedly going to take Louisiana to a new “gold standard” in regulating the ruling class has been widely panned by those who were charged with enforcement, and there appears to be little protection now against self-dealing, nepotism, campaign finance irregularities and other transgressions formerly proscribed by in-state regulations. Many of the best people in those positions have seen the handwriting on the wall and moved on to other pursuits, leaving Louisiana dependent on Federal agencies and Federal law to control these local problems. In fact, Governor Jindal’s strong desire to privatize every aspect of what were once public functions has attracted growing attention from Federal regulators. The CNSI affair is but one example wherein the Jindal Administration seemed unconcerned by the rumors and appearance of impropriety surrounding awarding of a major privatization contract, until word leaked that the Fed was investigating, the department head was resigning, and the State would suddenly cancel the contract it had previously defended as properly awarded.

Similarly, public records in Louisiana have suddenly become much harder to come by. Our legislators were unconcerned by a “deliberative process” exemption to public records legislation introduced by the Jindal administration. It now turns out that this exemption has taken on a life of its own, extending out to documents never seen or used by the Governor and routinely available in most states. Our reform Governor is a very powerful executive, but commonly operates in stealth mode, granting no interviews with Louisiana-based media, calling very few press conferences, refusing to speak with the citizenry, and claiming that nearly all records, documents and information used, generated or maintained by the administration are exempt from public review under the deliberative process exemption. Accordingly, even legislators only learn of major changes affecting their districts after the decisions are made, the lay-offs are in play, and the deals have been made. Facilities close, sell, contract with the state, and re-open as private for-profit ventures, all without any prior discussion or knowledge. Efforts to investigate after the fact are stymied by the absence of any records available to the public. Witness the ongoing saga of Tom Aswell of the watchdog blog Louisiana Voice in his efforts to obtain public records from the Department of Education and Jindal appointee John White. After a lengthy campaign to obtain routine records, the Department of Education settled the suit brought by Aswell on the eve of trial, agreeing to do what the law required and paying lawyers and court costs as part of the settlement. Even in winning, the taxpayers take it on the chin.

And what about the quality of the decisions reached in these secret deliberations by our Rhodes Scholar chief executive? The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the administration’s funding mechanism for its Course Choice program violated the state constitution and must be stricken. The same court invalidated the Jindal administration’s attempt to revamp state employee retirement provisions. Teacher tenure and salary laws are in limbo since the Supreme Court sent the case back to the district judge who had struck them down with instructions that the Course Choice ruling may warrant a re-examination of the district court ruling made when the tenure issues first came before the court. The Jindal tax swap plan garnered such little support in early maneuvering that Jindal himself “parked” the plan rather than see it shredded during the legislative session. The state Attorney General’s office disagreed with the Jindal administration’s position claiming that privatization of the State Office of Group Benefits could go forth without legislative approval.

The common element in so many of the Jindal initiatives is the involvement of the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a non-profit organization of businesses, foundations and conservative legislators which produces and promotes model legislation with what is generally acknowledged to be a pro-business, conservative orientation. Membership in the organization is not public, though involvement by Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and McDonalds became publicly known when the companies ended their relationship with ALEC after controversy associated with Stand Your Ground laws and voter ID legislation. ALEC favors school privatization and voucher programs as well as privatization of corrections and many other traditionally public services. ALEC claims that it’s model legislation is introduced in over 1,000 bills presented to state legislatures across the country every year. The Jindal “reforms” track very closely with ALEC’s model legislation, though the linkage to corporate sponsorship is never made public either to voters or legislators. Jindal spoke and accepted an award from ALEC at the organization’s 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans.

Jindal’s agenda meshes quite closely with the ALEC legislative approach. Privatization shifts public functions to for-profit businesses, which are instrumental in funding political races. Lower corporate tax rates and increased subsidies and breaks for corporations increase corporate profitability and leave more earnings available for corporate political activism in the post-Citizen’s United public square. Stiff-arming of public records requests and increasing the secrecy of government decision-making such as through “deliberative process” exemptions obscures the cozy relationships between lobbyists, corporations and elected officials. A steady supply of pre-packaged legislative proposals allows the executive branch to distance itself from the messy work of originating, proposing and debating changes in state law, weakening the working relationship between the legislative and executive branch and perhaps encouraging his gubernatorial duties rather than remaining in the state and in the trenches addressing the myriad challenges facing Louisiana.

As happens too often, the voters mostly didn’t get what they bargained for in the Jindal election. It remains to be seen whether the growing inequality in standards of living in Louisiana will motivate a new group of leaders, watchdogs and advocates to take up the cause of the working people of the state. There are cynics among us who say the cycle is already too advanced, the corporate oligarchy too entrenched. The old rallying cry of “Follow the money!” has never been more appropriate, but with the decline of the fourth estate and the erosion of public records laws and enforcement, that charge becomes ever more difficult to implement. We should ask ourselves and reflect carefully upon the following question: Is it really a struggle between left and right, red and blue, conservative and liberal, or is it just the age-old story of power and money seeking to sustain and enrich itself, while wearing the cloak of political ideology so as to move about more stealthily? The citizens of this state would be well served to look behind the curtain and see who is pulling the levers and operating the engines that drive our government’s decisions.

 

 

2013 Legislative Summary

The Louisiana legislature wrapped up its most recent session in June. During this session 450 new bills were passed, the majority of which will become effective at the end of August. Such an undertaking does not come cheaply. One of the new laws passed was the legislature’s budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 in the amount of $102 million. Also passed was the next year’s budget for state correctional facilities in the amount of $430 million. When adding in the $62 million budget that was approved for probation and parole, our State is spending half a billion dollars a year to house and monitor people who have been convicted of crimes. This amount does not even take into account parish prisons and city jails.

One way the legislature addressed this problem was to provide for drug treatment courts throughout the State. Baton Rouge has had such a program in place for several years now. People charged with possession or drug-related offenses are screened for placement in the drug treatment court. If eligible, offenders are offered the opportunity to plead guilty and receive probation in the drug treatment court. What follows is an intensive probation with mandatory drug screening and regular meetings with a treatment team consisting of counselors, probation officers and the Judge. If the person successfully completes probation, which is not an easy task, the conviction is set aside and the offender may seek to have his record expunged. This program is not available to people who have been charged with drug distribution, crimes of violence or sex offenses.

The legislature passed several other noteworthy laws related to crimes and criminal procedure. Over 30 new substances were added to the list of controlled dangerous substances illegal to possess without a valid prescription. These are mostly an attempt to catch up with the “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana now being produced and used. Blocking or disrupting a funeral route may now constitute the crime of disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor offense. Forging a motor vehicle inspection certificate is a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to $500 and 5 years imprisonment. Baton Rouge City Court has been authorized to assess an additional fee of $35 on every criminal bond that is posted in that court. In response to a recent United States Supreme Court decision, anyone who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for first or second degree murder and was under 18 at the time the crime was committed will be eligible for parole consideration after having served at least 35 years of his life sentence, provided the offender also complies with numerous other requirements.

The law on yellow lights has been amended to state that vehicular traffic shall not enter an intersection when faced with a steady yellow light. The traffic regulations were also amended to provide that no person shall use a wireless device to access a social networking site while driving. This goes along with the ban on texting while driving.

Finally, there are a few miscellaneous laws that were passed that should make us all sleep better at night. Lifetime concealed handgun permitting eliminates the inconvenience of five-year renewals. We also have four more approved special prestige license plates: March of Dimes, Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation, Free and Accepted Mason, and I’m Cajun. Further, a person can receive an “I’m a Cajun” designation on his or her driver’s lice