More de-escalation training, a renewed focus on New Orleans youth and better programming to help the indigent could be integral to reforming the criminal justice system in Louisiana, according to key members of the system in Orleans Parish.
Those were some of many topics raised during a panel discussion held by The Press Club of New Orleans in collaboration with Tulane University’s Criminal Law Clinic on Thursday night. Other subjects included the crafting and enforcement of laws, the city’s history of mass incarceration, and ways to better implement rehabilitation within state and federal facilities.
Moderated by Travers Mackel, a news reporter at WDSU News, the roundtable was held as part of the Press Club’s Newsmaker Series, which examines issues such as criminal justice and education.
During Thursday’s discussion panelists were asked to examine “the components necessary to create and maintain a fair, effective and healthy criminal justice system within the state of Louisiana,” according to the press release publicizing the event.
The panelists, who included Kenneth Polite, the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Louisiana, Simone Levine, the executive director of Court Watch NOLA and Paul Noel, the deputy superintendent of the Field Operations Bureau in the New Orleans Police Department, also spoke about the criminal justice reform challenges.
Other speakers included Graham Bosworth, interim judge for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, and John Thompson, the founder of Resurrection After Exoneration, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated people by providing a platform to address the legal and social issues.
During the event, nearly all of the panelists spoke about the importance of focusing on New Orleans youth and better programming to help the indigent, in order to help break a cycle of incarceration among the teenagers and the poor.
Polite spoke about gangs in New Orleans, and a culture of violence and criminal activity that manifested at a very early age. He said toddlers were growing up seeing family members engage in drug deals and shootouts, so that the cycle was almost destined to repeat itself from generation to generation.
The result, he said, is the violence that the city’s residents have been subject to for decades.
“People literally fall asleep and wake up to shots fired day and night,” Polite said. “They are being terrorized by gangs that operate in their communities, with impunity.”
Noel agreed, adding that he has “spent a lot of time” working with young kids, and most often, they always say that they’ve either held a gun or seen a dead body. About half the time, he added, kids in New Orleans say they’ve also seen someone get shot, first-hand.
Another dark side to the criminal justice system, according to Thompson, Bosworth and Levine, was how the system handled the indigent.
Levine noted that 80 percent of people in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court are represented by a public defender, which means they are too poor to afford their own attorneys. That, in turn, often leads to inadequate defense, largely due to the onerous burdens public defenders find themselves with in an environment marked by dwindling budgets and fewer resources.
“There’s so little opportunity at this point for those that are working poor and oftentimes they find themselves in the criminal justice system, and they find a public defender who is ill-equipped to represent them,” she said.
Bosworth agreed that people overseeing the system needed to treat those inside better.
“Take the individual who comes through,” Bosworth said. “We need to actually help ensure that person comes through system better off than they went in. When they do slip through cracks, we need to make sure we don’t simply just throw them away.”
Thompson noted that once in jail, there were very few opportunities for most prisoners to turn their lives around by learning a trade or skill, particularly in satellite facilities.
“The satellites overcrowded. There’s nothing for you to do,” Thompson said. “You’re just sitting around.”
One bright spot in the discussion was the NOPD’s recent de-escalation training, which panelists said was one of the keys to criminal justice reform, particularly in light of nationwide police-involved shootings that have made headlines in the past several years.
Both Noel and Polite took the opportunity to praise NOPD, pointing to reforms that had been enacted under a federal consent decree after the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating in 2010 an alleged pattern of civil rights violations by the police department.
Noel said the NOPD had gone through “extensive training” to deal with particularly aggressive situations.
“They’re trained that it’s OK to disengage and retreat,” Noel said. “When i was a young cop there was no way — we would have been shamed for doing that. But now we teach that to our officers.”
Polite said, however, that work still remained in that area, too, as police forces in smaller areas of Louisiana don’t have the same resources the NOPD has.
“What keeps me up at night about police-involved incidents is not the NOPD these days,” Polite said. “Many of law agencies don’t have consent decrees. They are not receiving implicit bias training. They do not receive de-escalation training.”
Levine, too, pointed out that eventually, neither the NOPD nor the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office would have consent decrees in place to help guide the system to function as it is supposed to.
She ended with a call for action, asking for residents in New Orleans and beyond to be more “active” about getting involved in criminal justice reform.
“What we will have, is we will have us,” Levine said. “We need to make sure those we appoint into power are doing right by ourselves. We as citizens have to be active whether monitoring courts or speaking to police officers about how we want changes.”