Friday, November 12, 2010

Prison, Reform, and New Orleans

The Lens lately has been providing some good insight into what's been going on in city hall regarding a number of criminal justice related issues in New Orleans.  Topics include the new jail that's currently under construction, funding for the jail, police oversight, and expert suggestions (such as building a smaller jail).

Safe Streets/Strong Communities a New Orleans-based organization that's dedicated to criminal justice reform, has published a number of post Katrina reports on the social and economic conditions and costs of incarceration in the city.  I read through "Big Jails and Big Costs."

Here are some interesting findings of this report (with my commentary):

1) New Orleans has both one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.  It also has one of the highest crime rates in the country.  I'm sure this is not a surprise to most, but these trends should both be high if incarceration is an effective preventer of crime.  As incarceration rates increase, we should see crime rates decrease, or so the logic would go.  But, this is not the case, indicating that incarceration is doing very little, if anything to reduce crime.  In fact, recent research is showing that concentrated incarceration actually disrupts the informal networks that people (especially the poor) rely on everyday for things, leading to more crime.

2) Most people behind bars in New Orleans are there for non violent offenses, such as burglary and drug use and dealing (typically crimes seen more commonly among the poor and marginalized, at least for burglary, drugs are a bit different).  At the federal level, roughly 50% of the 200,000+ prisoners are there for drug related crimes.

The most insightful part is in the interview with inmates.  People get lost in this system and there are major human rights violations, violations of due process, the right to a speedy trial, etc.

Also important, are the suggestions on what to do about the problems noted.  These include developing a formal contract between the Sheriff's Department and City Hall (to help clarify services).  Have an independents assessment of the OPP population and develop solutions to help in efficiency and operation.  Find ways to decrease the number of people going to OPP (we don't need to send every violation to criminal court, some violations should be simply a fine).

Safe Streets/Strong Communities has some good data and reports.  They're doing some good and much needed work.  Check them out.

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