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Panel discusses ways to end violence and mass incarceration in city, state

25th June 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

The recipe needed to end violence and mass incarceration in New Orleans cannot gel without one key ingredient: community involvement. That was the contention of a panel of experts – featuring Times-Picayune reporter Cindy Chang, author of the paper’s much-talked-about eight-day Lou­isiana prisons series – at a June 20 forum discussing the current state of area prison reform and rehabilitation efforts at Loyola University.

The panel included Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Louisiana State Rep. Wesley Bishop, state district court Judge Jules Edwards III, Dana Kaplan, head of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Jim Letten, U.S. attorney for the New Orleans area and Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of the group Voice of the Ex-Offender.

Government efforts alone – the panelists asserted – to beat back the rising tide of homicides in New Orleans and the accompanying social symptoms linked to high rates of imprisonment will continue to fall short if parents, community and business leaders and government officials don’t work in concert to execute a holistic approach to the city’s problems. Louisiana’s rate of incarceration is the highest in the nation.

Kaplan praised Chang’s reporting as a potential vehicle to raise community awareness of the “fiscal and public safety” issues surrounding mass jailings in Louisiana and called for informed action on the part of local residents to end the practice.

Henderson stressed to those in attendance that the justice system in Louisiana and elsewhere “is not broken” but “is doing exactly what it is designed to do,” asserting that the mass incarceration of the poor and people of color is no accident.

Letten backed the contention of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand who insists recidivism rates can be reduced if more community-based drug and alcohol treatment programs were available to those in the criminal justice system battling substance abuse. He added: “We also have to convince the private sector to take a chance on those coming out of prison.”

Bishop echoed Letten’s sentiments and said, “When the legitimate means to make a living are denied an individual [through job discrimination because of a criminal past] then that individual will resort to illegitimate means to make a living.” He then asked: “What does me writing a bad check have to do with my ability to give a tight fade?” referencing the experience of a recent ex-convict who could not obtain a barber’s license because of his history of serving time.

Gusman touted robust re-entry programs for those exiting prison as a means to keep ex-offenders from returning to his jurisdiction. “Eighty percent of employed ex-offenders don’t reoffend,” he noted. “And making GED (general equivalency diploma) attainment a part of probation and creating instant re-entry programs is also needed.”

Gusman also lent support to the national effort to do away with job applications that require applicants to check a box affirming their criminal past if they have a history of committing felonies. Known as the campaign to “ban the box,” Gusman said the effort is needed to help eliminate discrimination in employment against ex-offenders.

Adrienne Wheeler, co-founder of the ex-offenders’ rights group Cooperative Advocacy for the People and an additional panelist, said employers could aid the box elimination movement right now by selecting applications that don’t require applicants to reveal their criminal histories.

Edwards added his belief that the city’s religious community could play an integral role in helping those reentering society following imprisonment by writing to those incarcerated and establishing relationships with them upon their return and meeting with them after they exit the prison system. “If people have relationships, people don’t want to let the people down with whom they have established the relationship.”

Edwards also spoke directly to the business community and noted the various government-backed tax benefits associated with hiring ex-offenders and the innate incentive former prisoners have to work hard and not return to prison once they are gainfully employed.

“Hire a felon; you’ll be happy,” he quipped.

Clients of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), a local youth advocacy and services organization, were also invited to sit on the panel and share their experiences with overcoming the lure of criminal activity in low-income neighborhoods and the turn-around applied to their lives. YEP clients Darren Alridge and Terry White noted that above all the overriding factor in righting the course of their lives was the steady hand of an older adult saying, “Don’t’ do this and don’t do that,” Alridge said.

Chang said, to date, she has received hundreds of inquiries from readers asking about “how they can help.” Now is the time, Chang said, given the attention her series has garnered for stakeholders to “engage those people” and let them know how they can help.

This article was originally published in the June 25, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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