State Rep. Steven Pylant, a Republican former sheriff from Delhi, must drive through a lot of small-town Louisiana on his way to Baton Rouge. Pylant has sponsored a bill, and it actually cleared a House committee — although we doubt it will make it to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk — that would require towns that generate more than 50 percent of their revenue from speeding tickets to erect signs outside their town limits designating themselves as “speed traps.” According to media reports, fewer than 20 towns in the state would qualify. But Washington, just north of Opelousas in St. Landry Parish, is most certainly one. As The IND reported in a cover story, “Need for Speed,” a few years ago, the community known for its antique shops is notorious for its I-49 speed trap, and the town has been notoriously sneaky in maintaining its precious source of revenue — 70 percent of all municipal revenue is generated from speeding tickets in Washington, according to an analysis by a local TV station. The Legislature in 2009 passed a law requiring towns not governed by a Home Rule Charter to remit to the state any money collected from speeding citations handed out to motorists clocked at fewer than 10 miles per hour over the limit. What did Washington do? The next year voters there approved a Home Rule Charter, allowing the town to skirt the 2009 law. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Washington officers often cite drivers for going as few as three miles per hour over the limit and then slapping them with hefty “court fees” to make it worth the effort. That needs to stop. A sign outside town warning motorists of the approaching speed trap is a start.
Here’s the backdrop, according to the state Department of Corrections: nearly 1,400 Louisianans — in June of last year when the department did a tally — were doing time at taxpayers’ expense for simple possession of marijuana, serving an average sentence of eight years, and almost a third of them were first- and second-time offenders. More stark: 78 percent of them were black, even though blacks don’t comprise a third of Louisiana’s population. A bipartisan bill in the Legislature aims to correct that by sharply reducing mandatory sentences for simple possession of pot — legislation endorsed by a wide array of groups from both sides of the political aisle including Blueprint Louisiana, the ACLU, the Pelican Policy Institute and members of the clergy. But one powerful lobbying group stands in opposition and might just have enough sway to derail this long-overdue train: the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. According to The Times-Picayune, the D.A.s want to keep the harmless offense of possessing marijuana for personal use a serious crime because it allows them to harness “three strikes” laws against criminals who, for example, have two violent felony convictions on their RAP sheets and, in the event they’re popped with a doobie, can be shipped off to prison for 20 years or more as “habitual offenders.” That, in our view, is an unfortunate use/abuse of already draconian sentencing guidelines — driven in no small part by the private prison industry, which needs a steady supply of bad guys and is eager to grease the skids by lubricating lawmakers with lobbying largesse — that have set Louisiana apart as the state with the highest incarceration rate in a nation with an incarceration rate second only to North Korea.
Weak-kneed, ignorant, lazy or in the pocket of Louisiana Family Forum — at least one and perhaps more apply to the state Senate, which in late March voted overwhelmingly against a bill that would have finally repealed an unenforceable 1981 law requiring public schools to give equal class time to creationism and evolution — unenforceable because the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1987 in a case that originated in Carencro. Only five of 37 senators voted for the bill by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and none of those voting for the bill represents Lafayette. Sen. Page Cortez, whose district is wholly within Lafayette Parish, along with Sen. Elbert Guillory, Fred Mills and Jonathan Perry, who represent parts of Lafayette, all voted against the bill. LFF, a far-right phalanx of Christian conservatives led by the smug Rev. Gene Mills, lobbied against repealing the law, arguing it expresses the will of Louisianans even though it cannot be enforced. Whatever. Claitor speculated after the vote that many of his colleagues might have mistakenly thought they were voting on repealing the Louisiana Science Education Act, an equally egregious measure that allows public school teachers to “supplement” science curricula with materials that question evolution and climate change. The fact that senators couldn’t muster the will to banish from state law a 33-year-old relic of Louisiana’s backwards past that was ruled unconstitutional and unenforceable 27 years ago, either because they didn’t know what they were voting on or caved to pressure from the Family Forum, says a lot.