For decades, New Orleans’ leaders exhibited an unrelenting commitment to the harshest criminal justice policies imaginable. Even as other major American cities came to terms with the irreparable damage tough-on-crime policies caused, New Orleans did not. The litany of harms caused by our elected officials and police is too familiar. Police shot Black men on the Danziger bridge during Hurricane Katrina, prosecutors incarcerated victims while stacking sentences to send Black men away for life, judges levied fines not because they were needed but to fund their own budgets, and local and state officials denied funding to the public defender, preventing people from receiving quality defense.
The cruelty of our justice system became an expected part of our daily existence, and many reasonably believed the status quo would remain forever.
After a game-changing election season, we suddenly have reason to hope things will be different. In early November, voters elected two former public defenders to judicial positions. Both candidates promised an end to money bail, to long sentences, and to a fast-tracked system of justice that doesn’t treat people like people. Last week, voters elected Jason Williams as our next district attorney. Williams has promised a complete reversal from the district attorneys of the past: to end harsh sentences, the war on drugs, and cash bail; resentence the 300-plus people who received guilty verdicts from nonunanimous juries; and exonerate the innocent in the nation’s wrongful conviction capital.
Talk, however, is cheap, as the need for radical change to our criminal justice system requires swift action. We will be advocating for reforms and holding our newly elected officials accountable from the minute they are sworn into office. We want to be transparent about what we are demanding, so that it is no surprise when we voice our displeasure if we do not see tremendous change and fast.
First, we want to see the D.A. hold police accountable, not just when they shoot and kill unarmed Black men, but when they conduct illegal searches and stops or otherwise harass Black communities. These daily injustices erode public trust, and because they disproportionately target Black Americans, they help sustain a two-tiered system of justice where people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. Police who engage in such behavior should not be called to the witness stand or relied on for investigations.
We want to see kids kept out of adult court, and also kept out of juvenile jail or out-of-home placements whenever possible. We should not be investing in arrests and juvenile punishment, but in schools and trauma care.
We want to see not only the end of money bail, but also an expansion of requests for pretrial release by the D.A. People are presumed innocent, and we need a D.A.’s office that honors that constitutional presumption in more than name only, recognizing the harm that results from even brief stays in jail. We also want to see this office realize that people grow and change, and honor that fact in its sentencing recommendations and plea offers.
We will also be pushing for the promised culture-shift on the bench. We want to see all judges protecting people’s right to counsel, valuing quality representation over efficiency in courtrooms. We want them to end the harsh fines-and-fees that have been a hallmark of New Orleans’ justice system and which landed too many people in jail. We do not want to hear about children sentenced to die in prison, or anyone for that matter. No one should go to Angola without the hope for release.
Winning elections is important but the hard part comes next. As members of this community who care deeply about the way the criminal justice system has harmed it, we promise to do our part. Alongside the tremendous advocates who have pushed for change even when it seemed impossible, we vow to show up until our demands are fulfilled.