Federal Assistance Needed to Curb Crime in New Orleans

IMG_0149On Tuesday a congressional panel convened a hearing in New Orleans to discuss with city leaders the rampant escalation in violent crime that is plaguing the city and its recovery efforts.  The four-hour hearing, entitled “The Katrina Impact on Crime and the Criminal Justice System in New Orleans,” was held at Dillard University by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

The committee’s visit was provoked by the public’s outcry from a number of well publicized homicides that rose above the din of the Crescent City’s reconstruction.  In January six people were killed in a 24-hour period; four more murders were recorded on April 2, and this past weekend an additional three bodies were added to the tally.  With the number of murders in 2007 already approaching 60, New Orleans appears poised to make a run at recapturing its former title as America’s murder capital.

This violence has become all too familiar for many New Orleans residents.  In fact many citizens there have become desensitized to this violence, referring to a “culture of complacency” when describing the frequency of murders in their town.  Funerals are an everyday occurrence, but while those in attendance may mourn the loss of life, most merely hope luck smiles upon them long enough to cheat death the next time bullets start flying.

At the subcommittee hearing Police Superintendent Warren Riley pleaded with the congressional delegation for additional federal funding to aid his struggling department.  Nearly 20 months after Hurricane Katrina, the chief of police is still operating a major metropolitan police department out of a FEMA trailer.

This incremental recovery effort has ended up costing the police department many of its highly trained employees.  Officers have elected to depart New Orleans and join police forces in other cities where they are able to receive higher salaries, have access to better facilities and obtain a higher standard of living.

Riley informed the panel that before Katrina struck, the New Orleans police department peaked at 1,741 officers.  Since that time the department has lost 482 officers — 217 in 2005, 216 in 2006 and as of April 5, 2007, another 49 officers have left the department.

This reduction has been accompanied by a resurgent murder rate in New Orleans that has returned to pre-Katrina levels.  Meanwhile, half the city’s original population still remains displaced outside of Orleans Parish.

In reality, the entire criminal justice system in New Orleans has been in disarray since the August 2005 hurricane.  The police department’s crime lab only reopened last week in a rented space at the University of New Orleans.  Riley informed the panel that the lab has a backlog of hundreds of guns and thousands of narcotics awaiting testing, with only one firearms examiner and one fingerprint expert currently on staff.

As disturbing as the police department’s situation appears, the true damage appears to be manifesting itself in the adjudication process of suspected offenders.  In addition to not being able to process evidence from crimes in a timely manor, there also is a critical shortage in the screening by prosecutors of violent offenders and representation for poor defendants by the public defender’s office.  The district attorney’s office is now operating from its third temporary location.  The staff is attempting to keep up with the steady flow of cases while using card tables in place of actual desks.  But the volume is daunting.

In a story from the Times-Picayune, on March 31, 2007, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter was quoted as saying “Indigent defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking the basic professional standards of legal representation, and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western civilized nation.”

These are not necessarily new allegations concerning the public defender’s office.  But like many things that have festered in New Orleans over the years, Katrina has exposed them to the public eye and they have grown considerably worse.

This entire tragedy within the criminal justice system came boiling over last October when Judge Hunter, citing lack of representation, released four suspects awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges.  At that time Hunter said more prisoners, including some facing felony charges, might be released soon for this same reason.

Judge Hunter identified 42 indigent defendants he is prepared to release from custody due to their lack of representation from the inadequately staffed public defender’s office.  Their charges include narcotics violations, armed robbery and sexual battery.

It seems reprehensible that in a country as wealthy as the United States, and one which prides itself on providing equal justice under the law, such a situation would be allowed to persist wherein 42 citizens accused of felonies could be released before their charges are adjudicated because of inadequate government funding for a constitutionally mandated office.

A workable criminal justice system may only be one of the corrective measures New Orleans needs to become a functional city again, but it is one that will need more federal assistance for a system that is both fair and efficient for all involved.  One can only hope that the same governments that were so unprepared for both Katrina and its aftermath will begin doing better.

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Published by:  The Daily Iowan | p. 10A | 04-18-07

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