‘Most incarcerated city’ is not what New Orleans should be

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‘Most incarcerated city’ is not what New Orleans should be


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The Editorial Board of The Times-Picayune writes an opinion piece on the overincarceration of Orleans Parish:


Orleans Parish Prison was like a small, grim city before Hurricane Katrina, when 7,000 inmates were locked up on a regular basis. By the time Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010, five years after the disaster, the number of prisoners had fallen to about 3,400 (NOLA.com).


Since then, the city has cut the inmate population by more than 50 percent to roughly 1,600. The City Council set a limit on how large the rebuilt jail could be post-Katrina and approved ordinances to allow police to give summonses for some nonviolent offenses, among other policy changes (NOLA.com).


The reduction has been impressive, but New Orleans is still locking people up at a rate that is almost twice the national average. Mayor Landrieu is working to cut the number of inmates further, and a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice lays out some sensible ways to do that (NOLA.com).


“The vast majority of people in New Orleans’s jail have not been tried or convicted and many are low risk,” the report says. If people at low-risk of failing to appear in court or of committing another crime were released pretrial, “thousands of days in jail could be avoided and millions of taxpayer dollars saved” (NOLA.com).


Of the 451 people in jail in March who had been evaluated, 48 percent were found to be low or low-moderate risk, according to the report. That meant that 216 people might have been spared jail time. But they had been given a financial bond to pay that they couldn’t afford (NOLA.com).


In New Orleans, where 85 percent of defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer, even a small bond can be impossible for them to make. Holding people just because they can’t pay to get out of jail isn’t a humane or a smart way to manage inmates (NOLA.com).


The situation is far better than it was before Katrina, when New Orleans’ rate of incarceration was five times the national average. But the effect on those who are locked up is the same (NOLA.com).


People booked into jail can lose their jobs, their homes and even custody of their children. “Instead of making us the safest city in America, this over-use of detention destabilized communities,” the Vera Institute report says (NOLA.com).


Being locked up even briefly can even increase the chances they will commit future crimes, research shows (NOLA.com).


A large number of people in New Orleans who are being jailed never face trial. Almost 650 people held at the Orleans Justice Center, which replaced OPP last year, between January and March were eventually released, researchers found. Prosecutors either declined to take them to trial or they were given probation or a sentence of time-served.

Their average time in jail was 47 days. For many of them, the stay ultimately wasn’t warranted (NOLA.com).


Of course, there are suspects who need to be locked up. Violent and other high-risk inmates ought to be held in jail, and it is essential to ensure that screening and release is done carefully and smartly (NOLA.com).


The city is using a $1.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to look for the best ways to reduce incarceration (NOLA.com).


“New Orleans is the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country in the world,” Mayor Landrieu said in April when he announced the grant. The MacArthur Foundation funding will allow the city to put reforms in place to “help reduce the misuse and overuse of jails and make a more functional justice system for our residents,” he said (NOLA.com).


The mayor’s office is working with the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, judges, probation and parole officers, public defenders and police to develop this plan. The Vera Institute and a half dozen other organizations focused on criminal justice reforms are providing technical assistance (NOLA.com).


It will take strong collaboration across the justice system to make the changes that are needed (NOLA.com).


One focus is alternatives to jail for people with mental health and substance abuse problems and new ways to use pre-trial release and diversion programs. The city’s goal is to “safely drive down jail usage by 27 percent and reduce racial and ethnic disparities over three years” (NOLA.com).


African-Americans make up 60 percent of the city’s population, but they make up 86 percent of the Orleans Justice Center population, according to the city’s news release on the grant (NOLA.com).


The city will put in place tracking systems to look at disparities in the justice system and will organize training sessions to help justice officials recognize bias. The number of inmates stuck in jail because they can’t make bond likely plays a role in increasing that racial imbalance (NOLA.com).


“The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” Julia Stasch, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said in April (NOLA.com).


New Orleans has been part of that problem in the past. We should be leaders in reform now (NOLA.com).


See the article here.


If you or a family member are facing legal difficulties, please call us at 504-522-7260. We offer free initial consultations with our clients in mind.


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