PART F OUR SERIES ON MASS INCARCERATION
by Mariama Eversley
What would it take to decarcerate— permanently reduce the prison and jail population— in New Orleans, the city with the highest rate of incarceration on the planet?
Recent legislation to decrease arrests for misdemeanors like first offense marijuana possession and eliminating cash bail for non-violent offenses finally addresses demands from community organizers struggling to deflate the city jail population.
However, the construction of the $150 million dollar Orleans Justice Center (OJC) opened in 2015—the replacement jail for Orleans Parish Prison — its possible expansion and paying the Louisiana State Police to patrol the French Quarter, invests in incarceration rather than community needs like mental health care and affordable housing. Although activists applaud the city’s reforms, they say we have a long way to go.
The contradictory walk toward Decarceration
Hours after the City Council passed legislation that eliminated cash bail for most municipal charges, Yviette Thierry, a longtime member of Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), expressed her appreciation but noted prevailing incongruity in the city’s path toward criminal justice reform.
“The basic thing to me is we have all the initiatives and people getting money,” she said, referring to money and attention given to the city’s plight with Mass Incarceration. However, Thierry finds the distribution of that wealth to be paradoxical when institutions entrenched in the business of incarceration receive funding to reduce over crowded jails. “We’re still giving more jail bait. It’s kind of contradictory to the sign that you’re really in this fight to reduce incarceration.”
As it stands, New Orleans is still under federal consent decree and struggles to achieve a jail that doesn’t violate constitutional protections. Court appointed independent administrator Gary Maynard’s plans to add 89 beds to the jail that saw the suicide of teen Jaquin Thomas in October 2016 veers from the path many activists say the city must walk toward decarceration.
Beyond decreasing the jail population, community leaders call for a reallocation of public resources that would invest in the public and address the root of “criminal behavior”, “We’re trying to reallocate the funding that channels into the local jail into more programming especially for special populations like mental health, substance abuse. We don’t believe that our mentally ill should get services inside of the jail. It should be outside the jail that people get help with mental illness” says Thierry of OPPRC.
No Relief for Felony Offenders
The bail reform ordinance overlooks felony offenders. “Its not as sexy to talk about violent crime,” says Will Snowden attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders, “there is certainly a rhetoric of harsh criminal justice and harsh sentencing laws that is organized around the idea of the violent offender.” In Louisiana a guilty verdict for second-degree murder automatically yields life without parole, and for first-degree murder the judge can consider the death penalty. After a first felony conviction, district attorneys maintain the right to charge individuals as “habitual offenders” where subsequent felonies can be doubled, acquire mandatory minimums, and even carry a life without parole sentence. Even lower level felonies like possession of a firearm by a convicted felon carry up to 20 years in prison and 5,000 dollars in fines.
Individuals accused of felony offenses face even higher bail, decreasing the chances of a fair trial. Inmates stuck in jail while awaiting trial due to exorbitant bail regularly take plea deals just to escape inhumane conditions and return to their families, friends, and work. “There was a member from Stand [With Dignity] last night who said he just wanted to go home so he took a plea bargain just to not be in there. He wasn’t guilty but he pled guilty because he didn’t want to be back there” Thierry said.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro presides over the prosecutor’s office notorious for pursuing severe punishment for defendants. Under his leadership, the office’s usage of the habitual offender statute sent a 49-year-old Father of seven to prison for 13 years for possessing two marijuana joints. Cannizzaro’s practice of transferring juveniles to adult felony court when accused of violent crimes exposes teenagers to sexual and physical violence as well as a severely diminished chance to lead a successful life.
The office’s 90% acceptance rate of criminal cases coupled with harsh practices mentioned above feeds the jail and prison system, and often with lengthy sentences.
Snowden echoed the need to invest in communities, not prisons and jails, “its really hard to have conversations about violent offenders when people aren’t taking into consideration some of the factors that may have led this individual to poverty… through not having a conversation about the product of those contributing factors to crime, the easy way to address crime is to just focus on the allegations.”
Gentrification and Policing
Reforming bail and decreasing the city jail population can make little difference without a change in predatory policing.
Protecting its main economic engine, City Council passed an ordinance in 2015 levying increased sales taxes in the French Quarter to generate an estimated $2 million to fund patrols by 45 state police officers in the French Quarter. The City Council’s move represents an investment in incarceration over people, and especially puts Black New Orleanians at risk. The force has a reputation for being aggressive and is currently battling a lawsuit from a civil rights law firm for excessive force and racial profiling.
Increased police presence in the French Quarter remains a mainstay of a post-Katrina era of city development. Former trash mogul and millionaire Sidney Torres privately funded the French Quarter Task Force in the wake of the Hurricane where users could report crime and suspicious activity to a fleet of off duty NOPD officers through a smart phone app. A local public health expert working with marginalized women noted how the private police force began pushing Native New Orleanians out of the quarter, “the push out happened around the time of Sidney Torress’s Disneyfication of the quarter when he wanted to clean everything up.” She noted that even before the influx of state police, the task force targeted marginalized women, especially those accused of engaging in sex work, “Once you’ve been arrested and once you’ve been known by the police especially in the quarter you’re much more visible to the police. So getting threatened, getting harassed, getting arrested, just based on what you had been arrested for in the past,” she said. The venture, unique in that it was completely funded by a private citizen, is now under control of city government.
A City For Tourists
A new development in policing may undermine even the city’s small but important steps in decreasing the jail population. Claiming an alarming “spike in crime,” Attorney General Jeff Landry sent his Violent Crimes Task Force— a team of five state law enforcement agents—to New Orleans in the last quarter of 2016. Despite its title, the task force appears to be more of a maneuver from the state to continue crackdowns on mostly non-violent offenses, a practice the city is trying to move away from. Landry’s public statements that he intends to safeguard New Orleans’s $6.7 billion tourist industry highlight a privileging of tourism and gentrification over the safety and well being of native and black New Orleanians.
Investing in The People
Movements like Fight for 15 and labor organizations like the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice represent a dire need to increase wages in a city that is becoming rapidly unaffordable to its natives. Housing justice organizations like Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative call for “resident controlled development” to push back against top down development rapidly displacing New Orleans natives.
Without changing what feeds the beast, substantial change for criminal justice remains a dream deferred in New Orleans.