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Study calls for reduction in Orleans jail population

29th August 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

A detailed study on precisely who is in jail in New Orleans shows significant progress in the city’s history of excessive incarceration rates, but also advocates for a further reduction in the jail population and a broader conversation asking, “How well is our system working?”

The report released this month by the Vera Institute of Justice is titled “New Orleans: Who’s in Jail and Why,” and gives a breakdown of the demographics and justifications of the jailed population between April 2015 and March 2016.

More than a decade ago, New Orleans jailed people at a rate five times the national average, but today the population of Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) has consistently decreased since 2009, according to the report. In that same time period, “local crime rates decrease, demonstrating that the jail population can be reduced safely.”

In the year Vera documented the population, there was a 15 percent decrease, from 1,876 people to 1,591 people. But with the recent opening of the new jail, the report concludes the capacity outweighs the needs: “With 2,039 beds available and an average daily population of fewer than 1,600 people, the number of jail beds exceeds our current detention needs.”

The consequences of even a short jail stay can be far reaching, the report described, of the city’s historically high incarceration rates and the “tens of thousands of people booked into the jail each year who lost their jobs, homes, and even custody of their children. Instead of making us the safest city in America, the over-use of detention destabilized communities.”

If Louisiana has any lessons for the rest of the nation, it has shown without doubt that locking more people up does not result in lower crimes rates.

Defining the purpose of jail, the Vera report notes that unlike prisons, jails are designed for short-term use, and “The city of New Orleans pays for the operation of the jail with taxpayers’ dollars; it is a core civic responsibility to ensure that we detain people only when necessary.”

On March 2, 2016, the survey found 90 percent of people in jail were waiting on a court date and not serving a sentence. Only 10 percent of the population in OPP on that day included people convicted of a crime and serving a sentence. “An arrest does not prove that someone committed a crime,” the report observes, “which is why we need tools in addition to the charge used at the time of arrest to decide who should be released pending trial.”

The report also notes that in Louisiana, even something labeled a “felony,” can be as minor as simple drug possession – which in the case of marijuana is now not even a crime in a growing number of states.

But holding people who pose little or no threat to society is not only unnecessarily destructive to that individual’s future and a waste of taxpayer dollars, it is counterproductive, according to Vera: “Timely release is essential because even a few days in jail for low-risk arrestees increases their chances of being arrested for a new offense while on pretrial release.”

The over-incarceration of Americans is a growing conversation nationwide, and the call for reform increasingly bi-partisan.

On August 18, the U.S. Department of Justice instructed officials in a memo to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope.

While OPP is not a privately operated prison, a closer examination of the motives behind putting people – especially non-violent offenders – behind bars is increasingly being scrutinized.

The goal in phasing out the use of private prisons on a federal level, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

There are privately operated prisons in many parts of Louisiana, and a depraved system in place which relies on filling the cells so that prison profiteers can fill their pockets.

There is also a bigger spotlight on whether some are operating as “debtors’ prisons.”

In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal class-action lawsuit against a Judge Robert Black in Bogalusa, accusing Black of imposing illegal fees and jailing defendants who are unable to pay for traffic tickets and misdemeanors.

“Nobody should be jailed or threatened with jail if they are too poor to pay a fine,” said SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke in a statement. “Funding the justice system on the backs of the poor is fundamentally unfair and creates a systemic incentive to find people guilty.”

The Vera report on OPP also looked at the people who may be in jail because they are unable to afford their bond. For those who pose a low or low-moderate risk of failing to appear for future court dates or being arrested for a new offense, “One hundred and eighteen of them were held on a $25,000 bail or less, an unaffordable sum to many,” the report found. “New Orleans’s poverty rate is almost twice the national average. Eighty-five percent of people who go through the criminal justice system are too poor to hire a lawyer.”

The study also examined how different populations are disproportionately impacted. Black men were found to be 50 percent more likely than white men to be arrested, and Black women were 55 percent more likely to be arrested than white women. In addition, Black men tended to be held in jail longer, the report found.

“Although black males represent 28 percent of the entire New Orleans population, black men made up 80 percent of people in OPP on March 2, 2016,” according to the report. “What is evident in this data is that the current use of detention disproportionately harms black people in New Orleans.”

In conclusion, the report acknowledges the improvement in that New Orleans is no longer leading the nation in incarceration, but also that there remains much room for improvement. More beds are not needed, Vera emphasizes, and there is a need to further reduce the current jail population as well as address the racial disparities.

This article originally published in the August 29, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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