Thank you for your long and thorough examination of the status of the Orleans Parish Prison. I was surprised to read Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche quoted as saying that without more jail beds “there’s no point in hiring more police officers.” This statement illustrates the problem with the criminal justice system in New Orleans: The assumption that it’s all about arrests and incarceration, and not about public safety.
Incarceration should be reserved for those people who need to be removed from society, not for those whose penalties can be paid in less restrictive ways. Evidence gathered from communities across the United States shows that arresting and incarcerating more people has not made us safer. That evidence was the underpinning for the recommendation, four years ago, to cap the Orleans Parish Prison at 1,438 beds. The recommended prison size was part of a massive rethinking of our criminal justice system, with the goal to keep minor offenders out of jail and in their communities. Departing from that vision now would be to return to a system that has been shown to have failed and that was rejected just a few years ago.
The vast majority of the occupants in Orleans Parish Prison are pretrial detainees, there for minor, nonviolent offenses. They are not dangerous criminals. Our community will not be any safer if we lock up more such people, keep them away from their families and their jobs, and place them in an environment where they mingle with those who are truly dangerous. Better policing — and more officers — will allow us to focus on identifying the relatively few individuals who are truly harmful.
The motto of the New Orleans Police Department is “To Protect and to Serve.” Protection and service mean many things, only one of which might be to arrest when necessary. Protection can mean community policing, a faster response time and better investigation. Service can mean programs designed to keep young people off the streets and away from danger.
New Orleans long held the distinction of being the incarceration capital of the world. That dubious distinction didn’t result in a safer city, because we were locking up thousands of people who weren’t dangerous. It’s long past time to recognize that a good police force can make us safer not by increased arrest numbers, but by focussing on the real problems we face. That is how we will become a safer and better city.
Marjorie R. Esman
executive director for ACLU and ACLU Foundation of Louisiana