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September 3, 2013
Contact: Norris Henderson 504-453-4819
STATEMENT FROM ORLEANS PARISH PRISON REFORM COALITION
New Orleans Needs Real Reform, Not a Larger Jail
Last week, Mayor Landrieu and Sheriff Gusman announced their intent to add an additional building to the planned construction of the new jail - a move that violates both a 2011 City Council ordinance and the public’s trust. As our elected officials surely remember, that ordinance, which passed unanimously in City Council with an outpouring of public support, limits the number of beds in the new jail facility to 1,438. As members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) we oppose the building of any additional jail beds beyond the agreed-upon 1,438 cap. To increase the size of the jail at this moment would not only be a blatant disregard of the democratic process, it would be a capitulation to the kind of racialized fear-mongering that has held this city hostage for far too long.
To be clear: the rate at which the city of New Orleans incarcerates is astronomically higher than any other place on earth. To fill a 1,438 bed jail, New Orleans would still need to incarcerate at a rate of double the national average in a country widely agreed to suffer from a crisis of over-incarceration. Although the city is proposing to use FEMA dollars to build the additional facility, the cost of maintaining it indefinitely into the future is one that will fall on taxpayers for generations to come.
Not only is incarceration at these rates unnecessary and costly to the city, it is also dangerous. In a report released on August 29th, the Metropolitan Crime Commission used a current population snapshot to suggest that the new jail will need to be at least 2,200 beds to serve New Orleans’ needs. By treating the size of the prisoner population as fixed, the report forecloses meaningful discussion of reforming the wasteful and inhumane practices that drive up the population. Moreover, the report implies that the population currently incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is made up primarily of violent offenders who, if released, would be a danger to public safety. This is absolutely and unequivocally false. In reality, the vast majority of OPP prisoners are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of any crime. Of those, many are charged with minor offenses such as drug possession. To paint young men convicted of marijuana possession as rapists and murderers is a deception that is not simply irresponsible: it costs lives.
Our city continues to incarcerate people not based on any danger they pose to the community, but based on their inability to pay bond. This leads to the disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color. About 84 percent of those incarcerated in New Orleans are African Americans. The average length of time spent waiting for trial is 69 days for African Americans and 38 days for whites.
It is long past time our city’s governing officials committed to implementing the reforms needed to responsibly address the current crisis. While the current population at OPP is greater than the 1,438 projected by expert researchers during the planning of new construction, this in no way an indication that we need a bigger jail. Rather, it is a reminder that our city’s criminal justice agencies must be held accountable to implementing policies that will reduce the jail population and increase public safety. Instead of considering the construction of new jail facilities, we urge the Mayor and City Council to consider the current practices of the courts, police, and District Attorney, and to make policy changes that promote pretrial release, diversion, and treatment over arrest and incarceration. We demand that the city fully fund the Pretrial Services program and that our judges be held accountable to making use of that program to make responsible and safe bond decisions. We also urge the city to invest in community-based treatment for people struggling with substance use and mental health issues, rather than building more jail beds for them.
We understand that the road to meaningful reform is long and hard, but we must begin the journey in earnest. Building a larger jail will not solve our city’s problems. Let’s start to talk about what will. As a contribution to that conversation, OPPRC plans to issue an open letter to Mitch Landrieu later this week.