A New Vision for Justice in New Orleans

Nola Street Scene

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 25 percent of the people in jail have been safely released in Orleans Parish without an increase in crime. Before the coronavirus crisis, the criminal legal system assumed these people had to be locked up—despite being incarcerated on low bail amounts and nonviolent charges. But we’ve seen these assumptions—long considered the bedrock of the justice system—, invalidated. In fact, public safety does not require the jailing of so many people, and this crisis gives New Orleans the chance for a bold new vision of justice going forward.

As a former public defender, I’ve seen how routine it is that poor, mostly Black, New Orleanians are unnecessarily detained pretrial when they could safely be released. However, the system is designed to keep you in jail if you don’t have money. The keys to the jail should not be the coins in your pocket. Yet we use money to determine who stays or who gets released, when money does nothing to deliver public safety.

No one should be in jail for possession of drugs, offenses that do not involve direct physical harm or direct threats to a person, or technical or supervision violations of probation or parole. It flies in the face of justice and fairness to hold these people in jail when they would be better off at home providing for loved ones or in an environment that is providing care for them.

Vera has had an office in New Orleans since 2006, when the city council invited us to assess the criminal legal system and propose reforms. We focus on lowering the number of people in jail and restoring community and family bonds. Reform is possible through bold evidence-based recommendations. We have seen New Orleans’ average monthly jail population drop by 80 percent since pre-Katrina. Despite this impressive reduction, New Orleans still incarcerates at a much higher rate than many other cities.

We can be bolder. Our recent guidance brief outlines immediate actions policymakers can take during the pandemic to urgently decarcerate, many of which should remain in place after the crisis.

  • Decrease the number of infractions that require arrest and, instead, advise law enforcement to issue more warnings and summonses. These actions allow the justice system to address minor infractions while letting people continue their lives. People should not be in jail for offenses that will not end in a prison sentence.
  • For people who are arrested, eliminate money bail, and increase pretrial release. We’ve made great strides in recognizing the ills of this system, but have yet to fully reform it. No one should remain in jail pretrial simply because they cannot afford to pay. One first and critical step in New Orleans is to eliminate the for-profit bail bond industry that siphons over $4 million a year from Black and poor families, and to eliminate the profit incentive the courts have to fund the criminal legal system by imposing bail, fines and fees to generate revenue.
  • Finally, provide people facing mental illness or substance use issues with referrals to the services they need to improve their health and well-being. Jails are not hospitals, and we cannot expect them to be on the frontlines of health care. As part of a federal jail reform agreement, New Orleans had planned to build a new medical and mental health wing of the Orleans Parish jail, but in June the city announced plans to suspend construction due to costs and the declining number of people in jail. This gives the city the opportunity to situate mental health care in the community, where it belongs, rather than in the correctional system.

These challenging times are causing us all to reflect on the systems that leave people vulnerable. Returning to the status quo after the COVID-19 crisis recedes is unacceptable. We must use this opportunity to create a brighter, more just future.