We are faced with the daily reality of an imminent collapse of our criminal justice institutions.
— New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley
Some say crime causes a city to be under siege; others say crime is the symptom of a city under siege. Either way, New Orleans is in serious trouble. Our criminal justice system is in unprecedented crisis.
Thursday there were four murders in 24 hours in New Orleans. Over the weekend three more people died from gunshots. So far this year, 170 people have been murdered in New Orleans — a rate seven times the national average.
The District Attorney of New Orleans just resigned at the insistence of the Mayor, the Attorney General and several legislators. His office owes a group of discharged employees a federal civil rights judgment of over $3 million — and neither the City nor State was willing to pay unless he resigned. There is high turnover in the office and thousands of people arrested have been released because the office could not timely decide whether to charge them with crimes or not. His resignation will not make New Orleans any safer.
Katrina severely damaged an already dysfunctional criminal justice in New Orleans. In fact, what has occurred and is happening now in New Orleans is really neither “justice” nor a “system.”
Before Katrina, New Orleans averaged 1000 violent crimes each quarter. In the second quarter of 2007, New Orleans reported over 1300 violent crimes — despite the fact that not many more than half the people of New Orleans are back.
Black on black crime continues to dominate. Of the 161 homicide victims in 2006, 131 were black men, along with most of the suspects. Many victims and the suspects were teenagers. About two-thirds of the deaths of 2006 have gone unsolved.
Police work out of trailers, including the brass. During the summer, officers filled out paperwork in their cars because there was no working air conditioning in their temporary trailer offices. Not until spring 2007 was there a working crime lab.
New Orleans has a post-Katrina police force over 80% as large as before the storm — nearly half are new officers. At the end of 2006, seven police officers were indicted on murder charges — and then hailed as “heroes” by many fellow officers as they reported to court. The police force is supplemented by hundreds of National Guard members patrolling the city in camouflaged humvees, and, on special occasions, members of the state police as well.
The public defender system is starting to improve but remains unable to represent all those facing charges. Recently, Orleans Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter mailed over 450 letters to attorneys in New Orleans ordering them to report to his courtroom to start defending poor defendants. Most declined.
Jail is not the answer to our crime problems because Louisiana already leads all 50 states in the percentage of our people in jail, and New Orleans leads Louisiana. A report on those in the New Orleans jail show that the majority are awaiting trial and many of those in jail could easily be released. A third are in on bonds of $5000 or less — the only reason they remain in jail is because of their poverty. Over half are only facing minor charges and nearly three-quarters have no other outstanding warrants for their arrest.
Addressing crime takes a functioning criminal justice system — and New Orleans is working on that by increasing communication between the various agencies and enacting some new programs. But, like the resignation of the District Attorney, this is not likely to dramatically reduce crime.
Three recent reports help show the way for New Orleans to improve the criminal system. They stress earlier and better communication between the police and prosecutors; a wider range of pre-trial release options; and greater use of alternatives to prison.
The August 2007 report of the Urban Institute, “Washed Away? Justice in New Orleans,” documents past and present challenges for criminal justice.
The VERA Institute of Justice report, “Proposals for New Orleans’ Criminal Justice System: Best Practices to Advance Public Safety and Justice” gives four concrete ways that the system can be improved in the short run.
The community-based Safe Streets Strong Communities organization has put out several recommendations about how New Orleans can fight crime without criminalizing or alienating the people in the neighborhoods.
But even if all these changes are started, most leaders acknowledge what Criminal Judge Calvin Johnson, who has presided in criminal court for nearly 20 years, says over and over “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”
Crime is not an isolated action. It is impossible to fix the crime problem if the rest of the institutions that people rely on remain deeply broken.
The head of the local FBI suggested to the Christian Science Monitor that criminals in New Orleans “are products of an educational system that didn’t educate, a state judicial system that failed to mete out consequences for criminal activity, and an economic landscape devoid of meaningful jobs.”
Katrina and its aftermath place enormous daily stresses on all people, particularly those already disadvantaged by race, gender and class systems. Treatment facilities report much more substance abuse, suicide and domestic violence. Yet, the mental and physical health systems are only a shell of what they were before the storm. Affordable housing is scarce and families are separated. Public education is not working for the poorest children. There is only so much the criminal justice system can do.
The number of doctors and social workers and nurses who treat mental health is down dramatically. Beds are down nearly 80%. Hospitals turn troubled people away every day. Doctors report people who cannot be turned away are chemically restrained on gurneys in the hall or kept in dimmed emergency waiting rooms until they can be released. The system is backed up around the state.
Even regular medical treatment is a challenge for uninsured and insured both as many hospitals remain closed. Drug and substance abuse treatment are scarce.
The extreme lack of affordable rental housing means many older family members have not returned to New Orleans. Many teenagers have returned on their own — living alone or with other relatives and friends.
Public education for those not in charter schools continues to be quite an uphill battle for the children — often in highly policed public schools that illustrate the school to prison pipeline.
Before Katrina, New Orleans had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation a couple of times. The police arrested few people for violent crimes and prosecutors and judges and juries convicted less. Police, prosecutors and public defenders were overworked and underpaid — often losing their most experienced people to the suburbs and other cities where the work was calmer and the pay better.
After Katrina it is all worse. There is much more stress on the streets. There is much less counseling and treatment available. There are fewer extended families to provide a supportive environment. The police are less experienced. The police do not communicate well with the prosecutors, who do not work well with the victims and witnesses, while the judges feud with the public defenders, and on and on.
After Katrina, there is even less of a system and certainly less justice for everyone — the public, victims, the accused, law enforcement and people working in the institutions. Only when the criminal justice system is supported by a good public education available to all children, sufficient affordable housing for families, accessible healthcare (especially mental healthcare), and jobs that pay living wages, can the community expect the crime rate to go down.
The District Attorney has resigned. But New Orleans and the Gulf Coast remain in serious trouble on all fronts. Our criminal justice system is but one illustration of our institutions melting down. For us, crime is not the cause of our community being under siege; crime is the scream of our community under siege.