Cops and criminologists wondered what would become of New Orleans’ criminal population when stripped by Hurricane Katrina of their neighborhood affiliations, drug suppliers, and a well-worn black-market infrastructure, says Time magazine. Before Katrina, despite the best efforts of techno-cop Chief Richard Pennington in the 1990s, despite tens of thousands of arrests for drug and quality-of-life crimes, violence had become normalized. Time says that the city’s justice system that had “lost all credibility.” Of all people arrested during a 12-month period from 2003 to 2004, only 7 percent were eventually sentenced to prison.
Although some former New Orleans criminals were implicated in crimes in Houston and elsewhere, Time says that in general, New Orleans criminals seemed reluctant to break into the drug market in their new towns. Instead, they dealt to their old customers in a new place. Houston had long been a distribution point for drugs coming from Central and South America into New Orleans, so it wasn’t hard for dealers to set up shop again. As aid money started rolling in, crime increased. “They were victimizing each other,” says one officer. “The new crime was to steal one another’s FEMA money.” “Legacy” criminals, as the FBI calls them, have begun returning. Ten local gangs have regrouped where once there were 13. So far, the police have had some successes. Nationwide, 30 people from a list of 112 wanted people at the time of Katrina have been arrested; two others are dead. Police Chief Warren Riley is confident enough to vow that New Orleans should never again rank among the 10 most violent cities in America. The odds are against him. Come back in a year, he says, and see how many from that original list of 112 are still in jail. Then compare the results with Houston. “My understanding is that Houston keeps these criminals in jail. Let’s see if our system keeps these people in jail. That will be a great test.”