Ray Nagin, the former mayor of my hometown of New Orleans, has just been sentenced to ten years in federal prison. He began his tenure in office by cracking down on corruption, but by the end of his two terms – after his feckless performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – he was taking kickbacks and payoffs from city contractors.
What he did was bad, so he deserves to be punished. Yet I cannot help wondering what good it will do to put a 58-year-old happily-married father of three in a prison for a decade. He’s certainly not a danger to the community. Nor is there much likelihood that he will commit such a crime again, if only because he’s not mayor anymore.
Perhaps the justification for having America’s taxpayers pay a fortune to keep him locked up is that it will serve as a deterrent to other officials who might be contemplating corruption. However, there is scant evidence of a deterrent effect, at least in my home state. The Oakdale federal prison where the judge recommended that Nagin be sent has recently served as a home for a whole motley troupe of sticky-fingered Louisiana former politicians: Congressman William Jefferson, Governor Edwin Edwards, Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown, and State Representative Girod Jackson III.
So it seems to me that, as with nonviolent drug offenders, we need some alternatives to prison for corrupt politicians. The whole field of alternatives to incarceration seems a bit lame these days, in need of an infusion of new ideas. Perhaps Louisiana could lead the way.
One idea would be to exile Louisiana’s steady stream of colorful corrupt politicians to an island in the marshlands, such as Grand Isle. This little Elba could become a tourist attraction, like the bird sanctuary and Tabasco factory on Avery Island. Visitors from around the world could pay to poke, feed, and photograph an authentic corrupt Louisiana politician.
Another idea would be to create a Corrupt Convicts Corps and put these fallen politicians to work. They could be confined by ankle bracelets to house arrest in the evenings, but during the day they could investigate the dealings of current politicians and sleuth out corruption. They’d likely be pretty good at it, since they know the tricks of the trade.
Convicted politicians would have to serve in the corps until they ferreted out and helped convict another corrupt officeholder, who would then take over that slot in the corps. This would assure that the corps would be continually replenished with younger and wilier corrupt politicians. Such a talented posse of enforcers might serve as a deterrent. It would also cut down on the costs of prisons and anti-corruption units.