Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is a criminal. In February, he was convicted on twenty different counts of bribery and corruption. After pledging to end New Orleans’ long-standing history of cronyism during his election campaign in 2002, Nagin took over $200,000 in bribes from construction companies looking to win government contracts during the reconstruction of the city after Hurricane Katrina. From 2005-2008, Nagin and his top administrators perpetrated an elaborate kickback scheme that included money laundering and tax fraud. He is also, obviously, an asshole.
This past week, The U.S. District Court sentenced Nagin to serve ten years at a minimum-security federal prison. According to federal law, at least 85% of the sentence must be served before Nagin can be considered for release. The judge ruled that he was unable to pay fines, but owed $84,000 in restitution to the IRS. Although the sentencing has been widely accepted as a win over corruption, prosecutors sought an even longer sentence of 15-20 years, in accordance with the federal sentencing guidelines.
But, is locking Nagin away in prison really a “win” for anyone? Does it do anything to help the people of New Orleans or prevent corruption in the future?
Prisons can serve four basic functions with regard to criminal justice and punishment. They can isolate the criminal from society, be a tool of rehabilitation, serve as a means of societal retribution, and be used as a method of deterrence. But, none of these apply to Nagin or any of the other corrupt politicians.
First, Nagin is not a raging unstoppable murderer, so isolating him from society is not necessary. To prevent Nagin from ever committing his crimes again, he could simply be banned from holding office.
Next, federal prison doesn’t have any programs aimed at rehabilitating criminals of assholishness, so it’s doubtful that prison would really serve to change Nagin’s personality for the betterment of society. In all seriousness, there are no real rehabilitative properties prison has that could serve Nagin.
Proper retribution would be having the former mayor serve the city of New Orleans, which could take the form of useful public service that employed Nagin’s skillset. Retribution would certainly not be having Louisiana taxpayers front the $178,000 it would cost, at minimum, to house Nagin during his sentence.
In 2009, Louisiana congressmen William J. Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery and corruption. In 2000, former Louisiana governor, Edwin Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison on 17 counts of racketeering, extortion and corruption. Surely, Nagin could have learned from these state politician’s mistakes. Between 2001 and 2010, the United State’s Attorney’s Office made 384 convictions against corrupt public officials. If prison terms are meant to “make an example” of corrupt politicians, it isn’t working in Louisiana.
The misconception that prison time equals justice affects our ability to find a suitable sentence for crimes. Even when the crime is serious, the criminal justice system should be looking to find a solution that aims to correct the damage the crime has caused and prevent it from happening again. Sending corrupt politicians off to prison only exacerbates the citizen’s burden while providing zero benefits to society.