New Orleans city jail inmates stranded during Hurricane Katrina REUTERS/Jason Reed

A new report details how the city reduced its local inmate population by 67 percent since Hurricane Katrina struck.

So many problems in New Orleans were magnified following Hurricane Katrina: overloaded public housing and hospitals, failing schools, rampant poverty, the organized crime and violence of police. Another issue the city continues to grapple with is its jail system: The state of Louisiana is known as the prison incarceration capital of the world, and New Orleans was the jail capital of the nation in 2005. That year, which is when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the city was jailing more people per capita than any other major city, and at four times the national average.

New Orleans still has one of the largest per-capita inmate populations of any U.S. city, but it has reduced that population significantly since Katrina—by a 67 percent drop, according to a new report from The Data Center in New Orleans. The report details how the city achieved that through a substantial reshaping of its criminal justice system.

                                                               BJS, Jail Inmates at Midyear 2007, U.S. Census Bureau (The Data Center, “The New Orleans Index at Ten: Criminal Justice: Changing Course on Incarceration”)

The New Orleans corrections system has been embarrassed nationally on multiple occasions—such as when videos of inmates carrying guns and shooting heroin in the notorious “Orleans Parish Prison” surfaced in 2013. The images confirmed for the public what the U.S. Department of Justice found in a 2009 investigation, which was that the conditions there were out of control and unconstitutionally unsafe.  

This is partially why residents balked at Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s proposal in 2010 to build an even larger jail to house 5,832 inmates. Not only could Gusman’s staff not control the population they had, but the city’s increasing incarceration rate was not correlating with a decline in crime. Crime had, in fact, been increasing.

Gusman’s proposal was squashed by a coalition of community organizations that mobilized residents and convinced the city that it could not financially afford to keep, as one city council representative put it, jailing its way to becoming a safer city. The city ended up approving a new jail in 2011 that was just a quarter of the size the sheriff wanted: 1,485 beds, though the city was holding twice as many inmates as that at the time. This meant the city had to rethink and revamp its incarceration practices moving forward.

Despite being a majority African-American city both before and after Katrina, New Orleans still had a racial imbalance when it came to incarceration. Reads the report:   

In 2010, 85 percent of people detained at OPP were black, whereas blacks represented roughly 60 percent of city residents. In addition, black defendants stayed twice as long pretrial as their white counterparts when charged with the same offense. These practices contributed to tragically high unemployment rates among black men.

To address this and also shrink its inmate population overall, the city tweaked its laws, turning some petty crimes, such as marijuana possession, into summary offenses, meaning police would no longer arrest and detain offenders. But the major issue the local criminal justice system needed to confront was that it had turned jailing into a business.

As a primary example of how cities end up footing extravagant costs for its detention facilities, New Orleans paid its sheriff’s office a per diem for every inmate housed, incentivizing steady jail-population increases in the process. Between 1990 and 2004, the cost of operate the jail rose from $15 million to $35 million, which included pensions and benefits for the sheriff’s staff.

Reads the report:

Beyond the jail, other criminal justice system actors came to rely on revenues linked to incarcerated individuals. The criminal courts collected fees from each commercial bond, incentivizing judges to impose financial bail that left many poor, low-risk people unnecessarily detained. And the big winners in the financial bail system, the commercial bondsmen, became enormously powerful local actors, using their profits to influence state and local policy in favor of the financial system that leads to overdetention and poor public safety outcomes.

                                                                                                                                                 (The Data Center)

The city’s criminal justice system was also over-reliant on bail as a condition of release; this was partially financially motivated, but also the result of judges not having formal guidelines on what to do with those detained while awaiting trial. The Justice Department helped boot up a new program along with the Vera Institute of Justice (co-authors with The Data Center for this report) called New Orleans Pre-Trial Services to forge a better process, the results of which have been “good if modest,” according to the report:

Nearly 10 percent of low- and low-moderate risk defendants are released through nonfinancial means in the regular court process, up from virtually zero prior to the storm, with the vast majority of defendants appearing for court dates and staying crime free during the pretrial period.

Today, the city’s average daily jail population teetered around 1,900 in April 2015, a 67 percent drop from pre-Katrina figures, when it was upwards of 7,000. The city reports a drop in crime rate coinciding with that reduced jail rate.

Crime and incarceration rates for New Orleans 1990-2004 (The Data Center)
                                       Crime and incarceration rates for New Orleans 2000-2013 (The Data Center)

Last month, New Orleans was one of 20 jurisdictions awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to further reduce its local inmate population. The Data Center credits the mostly grassroots Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, formed before Katrina, with spurring these changes. In an interview, Rosana Cruz, who’s worked with organizations such as New Orleans: Safe Streets/Strong Communities and the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice on this issue, says it was important that the report acknowledged this pre-Katrina work.

“When you think of what was happening in New Orleans in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the police operated with full impunity,” says Cruz, who’s currently the Leadership Action Network Director for Race Forward. “The experiences people were having with the police back then, it was a different climate. The abuse was widespread, though most rampant in Black communities. I also heard about immigrants, young people, service industry workers, the lgbtq community of every race, but there were strong community organizations, some led by public housing residents, standing up and organizing and that legacy informs these post-Katrina reforms.”

“Sometimes the coverage of that history erases the fact this has been decades in the making,” she says, “but nobody can argue that there haven’t been tremendous strides made in recent years.”

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