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Whither Stalder? 

As Gov. Kathleen Blanco ponders the future of state Department of Corrections head Richard Stalder, the national debate continues about the costs of incarceration.

Richard Stalder's critics don't pull any punches. "Instead of looking at whether Mr. Stalder should be reappointed, the people of Louisiana should be looking at whether he should be held criminally liable," says Marc Schindler, a staff attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Youth Law Center. Stalder should, in some way, be held responsible for the injuries suffered by kids within his facilities, Schindler says.

Locally, comments from youth advocates are just as pointed. The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana compiled an eight-page report titled, "Stalder: the last of the Edwards legacy." (Stalder, originally an appointee of Gov. Edwin Edwards, was kept on by Gov. Mike Foster.)

Responses are just as emphatic from his allies, people like R.B. "Bucky" Rives, Jr., who for 19 years has headed up the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association. "Stalder is the most professional person we've ever had, and that's why we back him so heavily," Rives says. As head of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), Stalder got the state prison system out from under a longtime federal court decree and received accreditation from the American Correctional Association for every prison in Louisiana, something only one other state has done, says Rives.

Officially, the Sheriffs' Association has sent Blanco a letter asking her to keep Stalder in his job. Unofficially, says one observer, the state's 65 sheriffs -- who keep nearly half of the state's prisoners in their jails -- have been lobbying the new governor so hard that the word "aggressive" would be an understatement.

Rumors are flying. On Jan. 8, the Thursday before Blanco's inauguration, her press office sent out a release saying that, on the following day, she would announce six appointees. She instead announced five. The rumor mill said that the sixth would've been Stalder but that Blanco had decided against it at the last minute. Then last week, the grapevine in the anti-Stalder camp was saying that an announcement in their favor was imminent. One of the email messages was positively triumphant: "Rumor has it that Blanco is going to dump Stalder!!!"

It's no wonder that Blanco decided to take some extra time to mull over her decision. "She's been somewhat delayed," says press secretary Denise Bottcher, explaining that Blanco won't make this appointment for at least another week. Blanco herself isn't talking about any appointments before they are announced. "She thinks that this position is very critical," Bottcher says, "and she is searching for the right person."

The words appeared in big bold letters, midway through last week's Martin Luther King Jr. parade. "Dr. King did not dream of 27,962 African American Louisianans behind bars," it read. "Gov. Blanco -- fire Stalder now!"

The large, hand-painted cloth banner was carried by Friends and Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) and followed by a few dozen of FFLIC's parents, grandparents, young kids and activists.

Stalder declined to be interviewed for this story. But without a doubt, it's his handling of the state's juvenile system that has created his most ardent critics. "The conditions at Tallulah are probably the most shocking to people, the fact that youth are coming out of that place with post-traumatic stress disorder, that they were suffering broken bones from the staff," says Kenyon Farrow, regional coordinator for Critical Resistance South, a local prison abolition group.

In Farrow's opinion, Stalder has a complete disregard for human rights standards for all imprisoned people -- youth and adults. "And for that reason, he really needs to go."

Chief among Stalder's critics has been the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). "Stalder represents the good ol' boy, Louisiana way of making public policy," says JJPL head David Utter, noting that when Stalder took office in 1992, the number of juvenile prison beds stood at 900 and then nearly tripled in just six years.

Nationwide, Stalder has become known for building "enormous" youth prisons, on a scale that defied most juvenile justice research, says Youth Law attorney Schindler. "Folks in the field recommend that secure facilities for young people be no larger than 30 beds, and Tallulah was up around 600," he says. Experts agree that's too big to ever be run safely and effectively. "In the past 10 years, Louisiana has been running one of the worst, if not the worst, juvenile system in the country."

Pete Adams, who for 29 years has headed up the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, believes that criticism like this is inevitable. "When you run a department that big, you're going to make enemies," he says. "But in terms of how Stalder runs the department, I think that you'll find that most law-enforcement agencies give him good marks."

In past interviews, Stalder has told Gambit Weekly that he chose larger facilities because they were more economical to run. The rapidly rising prison populations, he has said, reflect the fact that he took office during a juvenile crime wave, which prompted legislators to pass new "tough on crime" bills and judges to lock up juveniles in large numbers. Stalder has maintained that his main job was to find enough prison beds to fit the need.

This past session, the state Legislature voted to shutter the controversial Tallulah facility, built in 1994 and since renamed the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish Unit. But even in its last days, the facility is still a sore point. As of mid-January, it held 109 inmates, each of whom costs the state $187.16 a day, the highest daily costs in the system.

"Think of what you could do with nearly $200 a day, not only for that kid but for that kid's family," says Judy Greene, a longtime Brooklyn-based criminologist and the author of a report, released in November, titled "Smart on Crime: Positive Trends in State-Level Sentencing and Corrections Policy." Utter and JJPL have calculated that for $68,313 -- the annual cost of imprisoning one kid in Tallulah -- the state could send seven kids to Louisiana State University.

Greene keeps tabs on prison policy in every state and found Louisiana of particular interest during this past legislative session, which produced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2004, sponsored by Sen. Don Cravins (D-Arnaudville) and then-Rep. Mitch Landrieu (D-New Orleans), who is now lieutenant governor. At press time, insiders anticipated that on Monday, Jan. 26, Blanco would announce the creation of a separate juvenile system that will not fall under the auspices of the DOC. It's a structure recommended by the Landrieu-headed Juvenile Justice Commission and specified by the Reform Act -- and one that puts Louisiana in the company of 40 other states that divide their systems similarly.

In her experience, Greene says, the impetus for prison reform can come from advocacy groups like JJPL or from state leaders, like the head of the DOC. "If you don't have one, God help you if you don't have the other," she says.

Greene and other observers credit the JJPL staff -- particularly Utter, whom Greene calls "a magnificent advocate" -- for helping to move the reform bill through the Legislature and for drastically reducing the number of incarcerated youth in Louisiana. That number now stands at 735, one-quarter of what it was only five years ago, when the state had 2,745 kids in custody.

"At the juvenile end, Louisiana has now joined a very enlightened and healthy group of states," says Greene. "But where is the David Utter of the adult system?" she asks.

When Kenyon Farrow travels to other states, he finds that people there generally know something about Louisiana prisons, thanks to nationwide media scrutiny of the Tallulah and Jena youth prisons and because of movies like The Farm, a documentary about the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. "But they're struck when I tell them that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation and that if Louisiana was a country it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world," Farrow says.

In 1989, Louisiana's adult prison population was half of what it is now. The astronomical growth in this state's prisons largely mirrored what was happening nationwide. Spurred by a crack-cocaine epidemic, "get tough" legislation -- steep mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and three-strikes penalties for repeat offenders -- started on a nationwide level in the late 1970s, says Greene, and was followed by a prison-building boom in the 1980s. In the 1990s, in response to a violent-crime wave, lawmakers vowed to get tough on violent offenders, but the resulting "truth in sentencing" laws -- restricting prisoners' early release -- affected inmates across the board, keeping everyone in jail longer. In Louisiana, nearly two-thirds of the state's prisoners are non-violent. One-third are drug offenders.

Last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, expressed his views on these "get tough" laws in a speech to the American Bar Association. "Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long," Kennedy told the audience. No matter that policymakers meant well when they introduced get-tough policies, said Kennedy. "It is no defense if our current system is more the product of neglect than of purpose," he said. "Out of sight, out of mind is not acceptable for any part of our justice system."

What will ultimately spur any real change in Louisiana is the fact that keeping all those prisoners costs money, and plenty of it, says Bob Roberts, head of the New Orleans-based Project Return, which works with newly released inmates. Roberts is currently serving on the board advising Blanco on the DOC appointment, so he isn't taking a position on Stalder. But he is critical of the prison system and the impact it's had on this state.

For instance, says Roberts, three years ago, the state increased the corrections budget by $55,000. That same year, the state money set aside for daycare was cut by $55,000. "It's costing us money in daycare; it's costing us in higher education; it's costing us in infrastructure," Roberts says. Finally, it's costing the public in terms of public safety, because people often emerge from prison worse off than when they entered and unable -- because of their record -- to get a job, live in public housing, or receive government assistance.

"It's a vicious cycle," says criminologist Judy Greene. "The prison expansion boom stripped communities of education, early childhood programs, health care, and child care in order to create an ever-growing system of incarcerated people who, because of the budget crisis, are less able to get the help they need while they're in prison. Then they're dumped back into the communities that are being stripped of resources."

This goes way beyond the DOC. "It isn't just about Stalder," acknowledges Critical Resistance coordinator Farrow. "It's about how do we make sure that the people we elect are putting money in the right places?"

On average, corrections spending now consumes 7 percent of state spending, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In fiscal 2004, Louisiana will spend $667 million on corrections -- more than 9 percent of the state's general fund.

In recent years, as states have grappled with a financial crisis, state legislators have started to examine corrections budgets. That has led to what's being called a "get smart" era in corrections -- practical approaches that still address public safety, says Laura Sager, head of the Washington D.C.-based group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which commissioned Greene's latest report.

"But it's not just about the money," says Sager. Public opinion has also changed. Most people now want non-prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders, she says, so that "expensive prison beds" can be reserved for violent offenders who threaten public safety. Polls also show, she says, that the general public now favors returning sentencing flexibility to judges and putting drug offenders in treatment rather than prison.

At this point, nearly everyone agrees that mandatory minimums don't cut crime rates. Stalder has repeatedly emphasized this. "If I'm an 18-year-old on the streets of New Orleans and you're telling me that you just increased the armed robbery sentence from 50 years to 99 years, that's not going to have anything to do with whether I go out and commit an armed robbery," he told Gambit Weekly in 2001. "What we've come to realize is that, if you incapacitate somebody, if you lock somebody up for a long period of time, the only person you really deter is probably that person."

"When the budget crisis hit, we were at a tipping point," says Greene. States had gotten tough beyond what was affordable, she says, something that was "particularly vivid" around the problem of drugs. "People know that locking people up doesn't solve drug problems," Greene says. "If a parolee comes back with dirty urine, it's just not sensible to send him back for 10 years." It's especially foolish now that substance-abuse programs have become more effective, says Sager.

In the FAMM report, Greene describes how 25 states have implemented sentencing and correctional reforms. Some of the most sweeping reforms -- in Michigan, for example -- were passed by Republican governors and statehouses. Within the past several years, Ohio made major changes -- including sentencing reforms, community corrections programs and early releases -- that have cut the state's prison population by about 10 percent. Reginald Wilkinson, Ohio's corrections chief, led these moves. Stalder doesn't fare well in a comparison, Greene says.

"During the same period that Reggie [Wilkinson] was moving very carefully and effectively, Richard Stalder was implementing policies that built a bigger prison system, bigger than the state needs," she says. "Louisiana's prison system is not known as innovative. If anything, it's known for a system that's huge."

Judy Greene views Louisiana as a key state in terms of prison policy. In mid-2001, the state Legislature did pass a sentencing reform bill, known as Senate Bill 239, and there were hopes of saving millions of dollars. In reality, say critics, the DOC budget has continued to rise.

Still, she believes, new, significant changes in the state with the highest incarceration rates could trigger similar changes elsewhere. "If some of those (juvenile-system) ideas trickle up to the adult system, then states that are already looking at what Louisiana is doing with juveniles may also get some ideas for adults," says Greene.

"I am holding my breath to see what the governor does." Greene says, who also will be watching to see what happens in the upcoming legislative session. Youth Law Center attorney Marc Schindler is more circumspect. He'll be watching, but maybe not holding his breath. "Louisiana has got a long way to go," he says. "They're going to need effective and sustained leadership and the legislature staying on top of this, otherwise the juvenile reforms could just go by the wayside."

The most important voice may not come from the DOC, but rather from Blanco herself, says FAMM head Laura Sager. "It's always true that the director of corrections is an important voice. But the governor sets the tone."

click to enlarge ASHLEY HUNT
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