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.

  • As you note, Nagin learned nothing from history before victimizing the people he was supposed to serve.

    But you left off one of the primary reasons for imprisonment – To Punish, which is different than retribution.

    Unless you too have spent time behind bars you may not appreciate how punishing the experience is. Sometimes, we settle for punishment.

    I have no reason to believe Nagin or Kwame Kilpatrick will find redemption while incarcerated. But they are and will be punished.

    • Kelli Gulite

      Punishment is not different than retribution. They are synonymous, and are treated as such in this article.

      Punishment can take many forms. Proper punishment doesn’t necessitate or require prison time.

      Let’s not waste our resources putting Ray Nagin in prison for ten years when he is not dangerous. Instead, let’s serve him with a punishment that would actually help the people’s he’s hurt.

      I’d be willing to debate what that punishment would look like, but I can certainly say that Ray Nagin is helping no one in prison.

    • what is the point of punishment if not deterrence which was mentioned in the article?

      • Maury Levy

        The belief that punishment acts as a deterrent is a fallacy. In practice, the vast majority of crime is not done via a hedonistic calculus, weighing the benefit of the crime versus the possible consequences of punishment. Rather, most crime is generally the result of impulse, spur of the moment, heat of passion, delusions, and the coming together of certain conditions as laid out in routine activities theory — hence, consequences are not considered or weighed. In fact, codified criminal punishments may actually have a perverse incentive and have the opposite effect of deterrence. If the punishment for robbery with a firearm is life in prison, what incentive or deterrent is there for the robber to not also simply kill their robbery victim if the punishment for robbery with a firearm is life in prison?

        • I agree with you but I still think the INTENDED effect of prison as a punitive measure is deterrence.

          • Maury Levy

            In theory, sure, but in practice it operates as nothing but pure vengeance.

  • dino

    This article commits the crime of presupposing the legitimacy of the prison system in the first place.

    • Kelli Gulite

      I can’t see any place in this article where I presuppose or out rightly declare that the prison system is legitimate.

      In fact, I only argue for alternatives to prison sentences.

    • I read it exactly the opposite pointing out illegitimacy of the prison system.

      • dino

        Yeah, for corrupt politicians. Did this fly past you? “First, Nagin is not a raging unstoppable murderer, so isolating him from society is not necessary.” This sentence cannot be read in any other way than it presupposes that some people (murderers) should be in prison and isolated from society. Agree or disagree with the idea that some people should be locked in cages (I disagree), the quoted sentence above is clearly in the agreement camp.

  • Suggestion, this rises more to the level of treason, I say tar n feathers n stocks might serve as a good example.