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Louisiana criminal justice system needs reform

21st November 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

On November 17, the Press Club of New Orleans, in partnership with Tulane Law School, hosted a discussion on one of Louisiana’s most contentious and most challenging issues: the criminal justice system.

The panel discussion, entitled “Examining the Criminal Justice System,” is part of the Press Club’s Newsmaker Series, and focused on creating a fairer, more effective, and healthier criminal justice system in Louisiana.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and is at the top of the chart for incarceration worldwide. It was there that the panel began, discussing measures to combat the high incarceration rates in the city and state.

Often, jails are clogged with inmates who have been detained while awaiting trial. Kenneth Polite, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, said sometimes these decisions are reached not because the accused is a flight risk or violent, but because of issues like a judge’s mood or a high bail.

Prison populations have also increased because of things like three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. A judge may be inclined to be lenient on a prisoner for a variety of reasons, but mandatory minimums make leniency impossible.

“In Louisiana, the judges frequently have no discretion in sentencing,” said Graham Bosworth, an interim judge at Section D of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

Paul Noel, deputy superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, said the police are now focusing on quality investigations, instead of the quantity of arrests. He also cited another measure to curb trivial arrests recently passed by the City Council. Now, police can issue a citation or summons for simple possession of marijuana. In the past, an offender would be arrested and spend the night in jail. Aside from crowding prisons, the arrest could cause an offender to miss work and possibly lose a job.

While steps have been taken to reduce sentences and jail time for non-violent offenders, there are still troubling discrepancies in sentencing. Simone Levine, executive director of Court Watch NOLA, said the average sentence for a domestic violence conviction in New Orleans in 2015 was 5.6 months (even though the maximum sentence is 50 years). But for distribution of marijuana or possession with intent to distribute, the average sentence is 7.8 years. For cocaine, the average sentence is 9.3 years.

Dwindling options for mental health care in Louisiana have affected crime in the state. During the discussion, Noel recalled the 2008 slaying of NOPD officer Nicola Cotton, who was killed by a mentally ill man who took her gun during a confrontation. Noel said the department has made extensive efforts to train police officers on how to deal with the mentally ill in a manner that’s safer for both the officer and suspect. But the state’s lack of in-patient mental health care remains a problem.

“We use our criminal justice system as our de facto mental health system in Louisiana and that’s a real problem,” Bosworth said.

Levine said that some cities have explored the concept of restorative justice. This concept has the victims, with a support system in place, talk to the criminal and articulate what they want. Many seek justice for the crime committed against them, but don’t want the offender to spend the rest of his or her life in jail, either.

Polite stressed the need to intervene in the lives of at-risk children. These interventions, Polite said, need to happen as early as pre-school age for some children. He told the story of a 19-year-old who was on trial for murder and heroin trafficking. That 19-year-old was the guardian of his four-year-old cousin. The four-year-old accompanied his cousin on drug deals and was photographed holding a gun. Because of the 19-year-old’s arrest, the small child was rescued. But happy endings are rare for many young children.

“We know there are thousands of young people (in similar situations) who we have not yet identified,” Polite said.

Bosworth talked about the importance of rehabilitating prisoners and training them to re-enter society, as opposed to simply imprisoning them. He said too many prisoners are sent to jail, receive no job training, and are expected to seamlessly re-integrate into society upon release.

Job training, career counseling, and mentorships can help prisoners to become better people in prison.

“When they do slip through the cracks (and break the law), don’t just throw them away,” Bosworth said.

John Thompson, a death row exoneree and founder of the non-profit Resurrection after Exoneration, pointed out a bitter irony about available job training in Louisiana prisons. The best trade programs are in Angola State Prison, which usually houses the inmates who have the longest sentences. So, the inmates with the shortest sentences, who are the most likely to re-enter society, receive the least assistance in returning to civilian life.

Thompson also spoke about the state’s use of inmates for labor through Prison Enterprises, a division of the Department of Safety and Corrections. Thompson spoke about the shipping of inmates between “satellite prisons” in order to do labor outside of the correctional facilities to which they have been remanded, including to do off-shore work, according to Thompson.

For Thompson, wrongful incarceration is personal. He spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which were on a death row, for a crime he did not commit. He said his situation is sadly not uncommon. He said that while police officers can be held accountable for mistakes and brutality, prosecutors are typically not held to the same standards.

“We don’t have accountability for prosecutors,” Thompson said. “They have the power to be God pretty much.”

This article originally published in the November 21, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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