Reforming New Orleans' Notorious Criminal Justice System


The Crime Report talks funding, inertia and over-incarceration with the man who heads Vera Institute of Justice's NOLA office.

It's rare for an entire city to get a do-over, but after Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans and the levees gave way, the Crescent City became ground zero for policy makers and visionaries wanting to transform the city's agencies and social structures.

KIPP and Americorp are involved in education reform, Brad Pitt is building houses in the Ninth Ward, and Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis are behind a village for musicians.

But there is one New Orleans structure that hasn't attracted celebrity attention: the notoriously dysfunctional criminal justice system. Even before Katrina, the New Orleans Police Department was plagued by brutality and corruption. In the storm, they lost hundreds of officers, not to mention guns, cars, records and ammunition. They also lost face as the country learned of police brutality immediately post-Katrina, including the shooting of civilians on the Danzinger Bridge.

For the past five years law enforcement in NOLA has struggled to take advantage of an opportunity to rethink the system. The city saw a slight dip in violent crime just after the storm, but by the summer of 2006 the situation was so bad Governor Kathleen Blanco called in the National Guard to police city streets – they stayed for almost three years. In May, mayor Mitch Landrieu brought in outsider Ronal Serpas to remake the department, he also wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for the federal government to help him by investigating “what has been described as the worst police department in the country.”

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2006, city council members invited the Vera Institute of Justice to study and report on the problems in the city's justice system, and arrange a retreat for department leaders with the aim of coming to consensus on the best ways to begin reforming the system. Four years later, a two-person team from Vera remains in the city, working actively with everyone from the Sheriff to public defenders to local religious groups to implement fundamental changes, including speeding up the arraignment process, “professionalizing” the public defenders office, and weighing in on the construction of a new jail.

The Crime Report asked Jon Wool, Director of Vera’s New Orleans office, to discuss the progress and problems of the city's criminal justice system.

TCR: What was the state of NOLA's criminal justice system the day before the storm hit?

Jon Wool: Before the storm the criminal justice system in New Orleans was fraught with problems. Problems in the police department in terms of huge numbers of arrests and a great disaffection of community members with the way they were treated by police. There was a seeming lack of accountability for police misconduct and extremely long delays charging people arrested with crimes. Many of these things are problems in a good number of jurisdictions– it's not only New Orleans. But I'm tempted to say that New Orleans may be unique in the extent to which all of these unaddressed practices come together and build on one another.

Katrina presented, in a complex sort of way, an opportunity here. There were some new people in government who stepped up to try to bring a reform agenda to bear and there was tremendous national attention being paid to the city. There was an absolute need to open up government here to the assistance of the outside…but private foundations had avoided funding reform work in New Orleans because reform was so difficult to achieve. Katrina changed that, although to what extent and for how long is yet to be seen.

TCR: What aspects of the system did you decide were most important to reform?

Wool: We spend a tremendous amount of money on criminal justice. Roughly a third of the city's budget is spent on criminal justice. But what people care most about — violent crime, is simply not being adequately addressed.

The jail in Orleans Parish held roughly 7,200 people at the time of the storm. The rate of detention in local jails was greater here than in any other city in the country, and that's still the case: it is now three times the national average. [Part of the problem is] an absence of a pre-trial service system. New Orleans detains virtually all the people who come before a magistrate, unless they're able to pay their bond. It used to take 64 days to get a simple drug case from arrest to first court appearance; because of our alliance's work it now takes 10.5. If the person cannot post the bond then they're incarcerated throughout this time. Now, with marijuana cases, 10.5 days in jail before seeing a judge is still unacceptable, so we moved those cases to the Municipal Court where they are heard in one day. But even in cases in which the normal sentence is rarely jail time, defendants serve at least 10.5 days in jail on minor offenses.

The biggest hole in the system is this overreliance on detention. People should not be in jail if they do not pose a public safety risk and have not been convicted of a crime. We detain more people per capita than any other city in the country. And, 89 percent of the city prisoners are not convicted of a crime–they're awaiting their day in court. Many of our initiatives have as a result, if not the direct goal, the reduction of the use of detention when not necessary to advance public safety. This is where justice, efficiency, and good government come together.

But changes in practice are difficult whatever the field. With expedited screening, we suggested reforms where each agency would have to get its staff to change the way they did things, day in and day out. The police would have to the file their police reports the same shift in which the arrest was made, where they previously were not required to do that. And supervisors would have to review those reports and get them to the District Attorney the same day or the next day. That's nuts and bolts stuff that leaders know is not always going to be easy to bring about. But collectively, we came up with ways to make things better for the officers. We got scanners for each of the police districts so instead of driving police reports to the DA's offices, they're able to scan and email them.

TCR: But you write in your recent report that the problem of over-incarceration was more insidious than just a slow system. The courts and jails literally run on the money gleaned from these low-level offenders. How does funding play into all this?

Wool: Part of the resistance to [expediting midemeanor cases] was that the state court from which the cases were being moved objected to losing the revenues from those cases. In marijuana cases particularly, defendants have a little money and could pay the court fees. And since there are so many of these cases, it amounted to $200,000-$300,000 in lost revenue to the state court. Now, that should not be a consideration when trying to design a reform that makes the system both fairer and more effective and efficient, but because of the way the funding structures are, it is a consideration for the judges who have to operate their court with the revenue they have at hand.

TCR: But there has been success remaking the public defense system, correct?

Wool: The storm basically ended the funding structure for the public defense system. The system was funded by fees from the conviction of defendants, as well as traffic tickets and the like. And since the court system stopped and certainly traffic arrests stopped, the money stopped. This is a really poor way to fund any part of a justice system.

Before the storm, public defenders worked essentially for the judges in whose section of court they practiced and were not part of an independent professional office devoted to representing the indigent. Now, with the help of a local judge and others, the city has created a truly independent public defense office now funded through a new statewide public defense system. But it is still considerably underfunded and plagued by what many public defense offices are plagued by – a crushing caseload. Systemically it's well designed and well carried out, but not yet well funded.

TCR: Right now, the city is planning to build a new jail, since the current one has been declared unconstitutional by the Department of Justice. How is the reform effort playing out there?

Wool: The jail, perhaps unlike any jail in the country, is funded by a per diem. The city pays the sheriff, who is the jailer, a fixed amount of money per prisoner per day–$23.39 a day to house a human being most of whom have substance abuse, medical or mental health problems–rather than a budgeted [annual amount] for the jail. The amount of money [per prisoner] is very low. And in order to have the revenues to run his facility, the sheriff has an incentive to keep as many people in that facility at any one time as possible. This is not a good way to run a jail because it influences decisions about whether people are incarcerated or not.

So we need to…allow the sheriff to have the same amount of money, but to reduce the population dramatically, getting it in line with other cities. That way he could do more with the money and…could bring conditions to a point where they could meet constitutional standards and in fact help the people in the jail leave there in better shape than when they came in, which of course is critical to breaking the entire cycle of these small scale criminality that plagues the community. It's important to do those things together – to fund it properly, adequately, and in a way that incentivizes the entire system to try and use the jail only for those who truly pose a public safety risk and not for others who for a number of reasons have been put in jail, including that they have dollars attached to them.

TCR: Why is it so important to do away with this funding system?

Wool: It poses very starkly for the city whether its going to be doing business as usual, which is large scale incarceration of our citizens with little public safety gain to show for it,, or whether we're going to … make rational decisions about who needs to be in jail pretrial. Only those who truly pose a public safety risk [should be detained]…the rest should not be held simply because they're poor, which is what a commercial bond based system does. It allows people to get out if they have money but it doesn't make a rational determination of risk.

This new jail is going to set the tone for the city for 30 years or so. In a strange way, supply really drives demand in this business. If you have the jail beds, all of the parts of the system will adjust and you will use those jail beds. If you build them they will fill them, that's a common saying in corrections. In addition to reforming enforcement and court practices to better address violent crime, we need to help drive down demand for jail beds for nonviolent arrests by reducing supply.

One of the great opportunities posed by the disaster was that the jail buildings were essentially destroyed by the storm. And that presented the ability for the city to rethink whether it is going to rely so heavily on detention. And that's why at this fifth anniversary we have such an important decision to make in whether the city embraces new approaches to criminal justice, ones that are fairer, more effective and more efficient. Will we use the available federal dollars to rebuild an enormous jail complex or use that money to otherwise solve the tremendous crime problem that the city faces and restore the public's confidence in criminal justice?

Julia Dahl is a freelance writer and contributing editor to The Crime Report.

Photo by Kris Krug via Flickr.

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