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The Justice Center

Posted By Deborah Gettleman, Mar 22, 2007

Though i came to new orleans with visions of grandeur, rebuilding houses, interviewing inmates to recreate lost evidence, filing habeus corpus writs, I realized that a lot of the changes that will take place happen through thoughtful research, devoted social scientists, and committed lawyers who rely on the former two. My week was spent compiling a "snapshot" of what is happening to the people who are arrested in New Orleans. If you were to ask anyone in this city what their criminal justice system is like, they would roll their eyes and answer with one word, "appalling." I can attest to this as i have seen less than 10 police cars the entire week (when crimes happen residents complain that police aren't around to do anything), and the data that i have been working with paints a clear picture of an incompetent justice system. When people are arrested in this city they go to jail and one of three things happen to their charges. Either they are accepted and will be heard in front of a magistrate, they are refused because there is no probable cause, or the arrestees are released on a 701. Once arrested the DA has 45 (for misdemeanors) or 60 days to officially charge you with something, if no charges have been pressed at this point then you are released (though not exonerated) on a 701. When arrested, you have the option of getting out on bail, which is often egregiously high, or waiting. The 701 release brings up many issues in the way the system here is run. For those who, had they been charged, would've been put on probation only, they end up serving 45-60 days in jail. And from what i hear, the jail down here is anything but pleasant.

Our supervising attorney said the power of policemen to put people in jail for 60 days is a power that is often exploited and acknowledged in every level of the system, yet nothing is done. In January 600 people alone were being held without having been charged with anything, 300 of them for the complete 2 months. He also explained that the Sheriff's office receives $22.39 per bed filled a day, which leads to many superfluous arrests. Of the 200 files that i viewed, and the other 6 people in the office agreed, maybe 5 were violent crimes. The majority of people were arrested for drug possession and prostitution.

The data that we compiled will be analyzed by Louisiana Capital Assistance (an org. in the Justice Center Office) and the suspect cases will be presented to a panel of experts, to not only help those who have been wrongly held in jails but also perhaps alter the way this city runs its criminal processing. For a contrast, in NY charges have to be pressed within 5 days, a far cry from the 60 that confront the residents down here.

As a sociology major, i understand the significance of data. In fact, I would argue that very little is changed without it. Though i did not interview evacuees, or visit jails, i feel thrilled that i have contributed to a larger battle to improve the criminal justice system in this city. The residents who remained during Katrina or who have returned describe a city that is less safe than before the storm, a city that is wrongfully incarcerating nonviolent offenders and releasing repeat offenders who commit violent crimes. As New Orleans devotes its time and energy on rebuilding this wondrous place, perhaps some changes will take place within the justice system that desperately need them.

HALO members working at conference tables on laptops