Allan Katz and Danae Columbus: MacArthur grant only a first step to solving New Orleans jail problems

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Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Landrieu that the MacArthur Foundation was providing $150,000 for a study regarding our high incarceration rates was good news indeed. New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate per capital of any jurisdiction in the country — quadruple the national average. Since 2010 we have jailed more than 10 out of every 1,000 residents. Why does New Orleans and Louisiana incarcerate so many people — especially African-American males, who make up 90% of the prison population?

Criminal justice public policy trends during the Clinton era and beyond encouraged incarceration for all offenders, including those awaiting trail and parole violators. Now national public policy has shifted. Reforms are being enacted in many states across the country. Even if some categories of offenders are no longer held in our local jails, the issue still remains that we must reduce crime to reduce the number of criminals.

That’s where a broad-based community commitment, hard work, education, job training and money — a lot more than the MacArthur Foundation grant — really comes into play. Yesterday evening’s brawl in Central City between groups of women armed with large sticks is just one example of how out-of-control some of our residents have become.

New Orleans has a lost generation (or two really) where education and job training were not a priority. Where parents and their children do not have a solid foundation based on faith and the importance of family. Where young people — especially African-American males — cannot envision a future without drugs and crime.

To really reduce mass incarceration, we must rebuild the community from the bottom up for the next generation. As for those individuals already destined for our prison system, we must give them the training and counseling they need during incarceration to reduce recidivism. Getting a job once you have a prison record is not easy, especially if you lack basic skills and a good education. We must also educate employers that a formerly incarcerated person who has been retrained is a worthy hire.

According to the Wall Street Journal, one in 35 adults in the U.S. were under some sort of correctional supervision in 2013. Research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics points out that stable employment greatly reduces the chances of a person convicted of crime breaking the law again.

We hope that Mayor Landrieu will milk every dollar available from MacArthur and other foundations. We hope Sheriff Gusman will find a way to increase the counseling and training program needed for the city’s prison population. We hope our public schools will do a better job preparing all students — especially those not college bound — for the workforce. We hope our churches and community based organizations can do bring our young people back into their circles. Only then will our mass incarceration numbers decrease.

New Orleans and Louisiana are not the only Deep South jurisdictions were prison reform is essential. Lawmakers in Alabama earlier this month passed new criminal justice legislation. Their prisons are usually double stuffed, and therefore endangering the health and lives of inmates. Even in five years, Alabama’s prisons will still be 40 percent over capacity, according to the New York Times.

In 2010, South Carolina approved a number of reforms. In 2012 and 2013 Georgia made changes in the laws regarding its adult and juvenile prison systems and have given judges more discretion in sentencing. Last year the State of Mississippi, which incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than China and Russia combined, approved more alternatives for low-level drug offenders. Senator J.P Morrell is currently working legislation regarding incarceration for those jailed on marijuana charges.

The lack of public defenders in many part of Alabama and Mississippi cause people to spend months in jail before even being indicted. New Orleans public defenders also suffer from a lack of funding. With the upcoming elections, candidates for President and governor should consider criminal justice reform a priority.


We continue to be amazed that Senator Fred Mills’ medical marijuana bill seems destined for final passage. It sailed out of the House’s Health and Welfare Committee yesterday with no opposition. Sitting with Mills at the hearing was our state representative, Helena Moreno, who will surely play an important role in the upcoming debate on the House floor. Governor Jindal has virtually agreed to sign the legislation. Though not perfect, SB 143 — with the support of the sheriff’s association — is a great first step.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several television programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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