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Can Anybody Fix This?

Reforming New Orleans' broken criminal justice system is not going to be easy, but everyone agrees the goal is worth whatever pain the fight for change brings.

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An hour into the City Council's Feb. 12 crime hearing, as District Attorney Eddie Jordan and Police Chief Warren Riley took turns blaming each other for the city's violent crime wave, citizens and council members let loose a silent scream of rolled eyes and pursed lips. As one woman madly scribbled in a day planner, she seemed to speak for the crowd when she declared, "This simply won't do."

Yet, even in the face of Jordan's and Riley's "it-ain't-my-fault" rhetoric, there were signs that change may be in the wind. Angry citizen journalists and activists from all corners and hues of the city, armed with the power of the pen and heckling rights, squeezed into the standing-room-only council hearing to demand accountability and reform. As the four-hour hearing dragged on, with its predictable tableau of political theatre, council members threw down a gauntlet, demanding that Riley and Jordan establish benchmarks and timetables for reform -- or face budget cuts.

That approach, spearheaded by the council's new members, portends a larger but relatively quiet reform movement at City Hall. Several council members say efforts to remake the criminal justice system are an extension of post-Katrina citizen-led reform movements that consolidated and professionalized property tax assessors and the Orleans Levee Board.

"It's like the stars have aligned. People have had enough. And the political will and leadership is there," says Councilwoman Shelley Midura. "We're in the spirit of rebuilding New Orleans better, and fixing (the criminal justice system) is part of that."

In nearly every corner of the criminal justice system, officials say they are implementing reforms. They point to assistance and advice from a myriad of federal agencies and national experts to rebuild public trust, enhance inter-agency cooperation and build professionalism and efficiency. Such efforts require a sea change in thinking if they are ever going to bear fruit, however. Previous government responses to crime surges -- little more than placing a Band-Aid on a bullet hole -- just don't cut it any more.

"We are in a unique time in history," says Councilman James Carter, one of the architects with Midura of the council plan to hold officials' budgets hostage if results don't improve. "Now that the citizenry is fed up, including some elected officials, we are [looking for] results that lead to a safer city, not a city that makes folks feel good because you are arresting everybody. We want smart law enforcement. We want equitable law enforcement. We want quality and professional law enforcement -- all of which result in a safer city.

"To fix it from a long-term perspective, and not just a Band-Aid approach, we want the person to choose not to do the crime in the first place," Carter adds. "And we've set a paradigm in place to make that happen. But it takes time."

That paradigm, officials say, requires a holistic approach -- combining institutional changes in the criminal justice system with rebuilding public schools and empowering organizations that tackle the social ills at the root of crime. They quickly add that such fundamental change requires a citywide effort that will take years before results can be measured.

The trick will be balancing people's need to feel safer right now with the long-term goal of making the city the kind of place that won't foster wave after wave of violent crime in the future.

Looking for evidence of a turnaround? Check out Orleans Parish Juvenile Court -- which The New York Times once described as one of the worst in the country. In the 18 months since Hurricane Katrina, Judges David Bell and Mark Doherty have instituted a set of reforms that have remade the court into a national model.

With technical expertise from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the court has implemented a series of alternative programs that offer youths internship opportunities and community service in lieu of incarceration. Although the court is working with 30 percent of its pre-Katrina staff, it has increased the staff size of the Drug Court by 20 percent and its child abuse and neglect staff by at least 30 percent.

And for the first time in the court's 99-year history, it has the funds to hire behavioral health liaisons with a background in mental health as well as youth advocates who work at a 1:3 ratio with kids. It has also worked with the DA's office to better screen cases to determine whether youths should be formally charged. At the same time, the number of juvenile beds in the local jail has dropped from 108 to 20. Most important, the number of youth-related crimes has plummeted by 92 percent since Katrina.

These reforms, coupled with the drastic drop in juvenile crime, have made the court a nationally recognized "best practice" program in less than two years.

"It's a tremendous, rapid turnaround," Bell says. "But we have so much further to go. Imagine if we were properly funded. Imagine if we were right sized. Imagine if we had some of the programs they have around the country."

Council members point to the court's reforms as an example of the kinds of changes they hope to implement in the adult criminal justice system. As a result of the September crime summit, the Vera Institute of Justice, an internationally recognized organization with more than 40 years' experience restructuring criminal justice systems, is currently assessing how New Orleans' institutions can work more efficiently. Although officials from the institute refused to speculate on any recommendations they may make, a report will be made public in March.

In a related development, Carter and Midura joined Bell on a trek to New York earlier this month to meet with representatives from four national foundations that work on the front lines of criminal justice reform. While the names of the foundations have not been released (because negotiations are ongoing), both council members say they left the meetings confident that New Orleans will soon receive funding and technical expertise.

The council members and Bell hope the Vera Institute and the New York-based foundations will help establish benchmarks for reform based on empirical research and nationally recognized strategies commonly referred to as "best practices." They admit that successful reform efforts in other cities (such as Boston and New York) can't be rubber stamped here, but they also acknowledge that Louisiana has tried the "lock 'em up" approach for more than 30 years -- and it hasn't made the city any safer.

"We keep trying to do the same things that don't work," Midura says. "So right now, people want more cops on the streets because they want to feel safer. ... But short-term fixes do not lead to the kinds of systemic improvements in the criminal justice system that we need now for long-term, sustainable improvements."

While threatening to cut the DA's and NOPD's budget makes for good headlines, some wonder if it's not much more than a game of political "chicken" that will likely render Riley's and Jordan's already mediocre performances even worse. Others question the Council's power to quell political quibbling and force needed reforms.

"Even though the mayor stood up and said [curtailing violent crime] is New Orleans' No. 1 issue, you still have this insane bickering and outsourcing of blame," says Peter Scharf, a nationally recognized criminologist at the University of New Orleans and co-director of the university's Center for Society, Law and Justice. "People (inside the system) are more interested in proving that the police department or the district attorney or the judges are blameless. But there are no virgins at this party."

If responses to a nola.com poll taken the day after the City Council's hearing are a barometer, the vast majority of residents -- 93 percent -- also believe the grilling of Jordan and Riley will not spark drastic changes in either department.

As another major obstacle to reforms, Scharf points to the dearth of funding from Washington, fueled in part by the staggering costs of the Iraq War but also by an age-old belief that New Orleans' government is inept and corrupt.

"The mayor says we need resources, and he's right," Scharf adds. "But the problem is we have a horrible reputation, which creates a horrible situation to try and attract funds."

While they wait for systemic reforms to take root, officials unveiled a series of short-term measures after the Jan. 11 crime march on City Hall, at which 5,000 enraged citizens demanded improvements -- along with the resignations of the mayor, the police chief and the district attorney.

The short-term measures include at least 50 surveillance cameras in "hot spots" and late-night checkpoints that have brought hundreds of arrests for mostly minor offenses.

Yet, despite the public outcries of "Enough!" and the promises of more and better vigilance from the mayor, NOPD and the DA's office -- plus state and federal help -- violent crime continues unabated in New Orleans. As this story was going to press, the number of murders in New Orleans this year topped 30. At that rate, New Orleans will have more than 200 murders in 2007 -- after Mayor Ray Nagin's promise to the protestors on Jan. 11 that he would expend all his energies working to reduce violent crime.

Most local murders are widely believed to be drug-related and/or retaliatory in nature. But several stand out for their sheer brutality and randomness. Most recently, two teenage brothers were gunned down in their vehicle -- allegedly by a man to whom they offered a ride. A 17-year-old boy in Central City was allegedly shot by another 17-year-old after the two got into a fistfight. The boy who lost the fight allegedly was given a gun by his mother -- along with instructions to kill the boy who had beaten him in the fight. A local filmmaker and Harvard graduate was murdered in her home, and the drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band was shot while driving down the street.

With 162 murders in 2006 and a population hovering between 185,000 and 220,000, New Orleans is widely seen as the nation's murder capitol. For those 162 murders, a mere 47 people have been arrested, 17 suspects were murdered in likely retaliatory killings and two suspects have been tried. Only one person has been convicted.

Jordan spokesman Dalton Savwoir told Gambit Weekly that those stats paint a "misleading" picture of prosecutors' performance in 2006 because many murders were not solved by NOPD. Savwoir says more than a dozen cases are in various stages of the system and that it takes, on average, two years to prosecute a homicide case from arrest to trial.

In many ways, Eugene treg's story is a textbook example of what's wrong with New Orleans' criminal justice system. Treg recently dodged first-degree murder and attempted murder charges because prosecutors lacked the witnesses and evidence needed to charge him within the state-mandated, 60-day deadline.

He was one of three murder suspects released from Orleans Parish Prison earlier this month without being indicted. Charges also have been dropped on a fourth suspect, but he remains at OPP awaiting extradition to Georgia.

In 2006, judges released 3,093 people after prosecutors were unable to bring charges. In January of this year, 220 people arrested for felonies were released after the 60-day deadline, and another 237 made bond. The releases are not factored into the DA's conviction rates -- because he only uses cases that he accepts to calculate his "success" rate.

Jordan says suspects are often released because prosecutors cannot build solid cases based on NOPD's arrest reports. During the council's Feb. 12 hearing, Jordan suggested that prosecutors and officers undergo joint training. Riley, however, countered that officers recently underwent extensive training in report writing.

A big problem with reports, Riley says, lies with the city's lack of a crime lab. Floodwaters destroyed the old lab, and since then, evidence has been processed in neighboring parishes, which takes longer. Riley recently announced, however, that NOPD has signed a lease with the University of New Orleans to establish a crime lab on the campus within the next month.

In the meantime, Riley says the DA's office could indict if they accepted cops' field test results. "The federal government, the DEA, they indict people on (field test results,)" Riley says.

The DA's Office will accept field tests, Savwoir wrote in a response to questions, "under certain conditions." In order to accept the tests, police cannot arrest a person if the test is negative, and the crime lab report must be delivered to the district attorney's office within 20 days of arrest, he says.

Judges require that defense attorneys be supplied with the results of crime lab tests early so they can decide if the expert who conducted the test needs to be subpoenaed. Without the results, judges will dismiss a case -- or refuse to allow evidence of drugs.

NOPD recently committed to contacting the DA's office within 14 days of a murder and to supplying police reports within 28 days. In addition, Jordan says his office now sends a letter to NOPD informing investigating officers when murder suspects are nearing release. And, each Wednesday, homicide detectives meet with prosecuting attorneys in a charge hearing to review every murder that occurred the week before or whenever arrests were made, Riley says.

The DA's office is exploring expedited screening procedures in cities like New York and Atlanta, which cut the time from arrest to indictment from weeks or months to a matter of hours for drug-related offences. Jordan also announced that he is now focusing on violent and repeat offenders. Five of six positions in the newly created Violent Offender Prosecution Unit have been filled with attorneys who have at least three years' experience. "With over 60 years of combined legal experience," Savwoir writes, "this unit is ... prepared to respond to the unacceptable tide of violent crime."

One change that has brought immediate -- and dramatic -- results is the intervention of federal agents and prosecutors into cases that previously were treated exclusively as state matters. Dozens of federal agents have joined with NOPD to help investigate homicides and other drug- and gun-related crimes with the intention of charging violent offenders in federal court -- where acceptance and conviction rates are dramatically higher, as are the levels of prosecutors' experience.

"We are moving at the federal level to send a message to the bad guys that if we find a federal hook and convict, you're going away for a long, long time," says James Bernazzani, the FBI special agent in charge of the New Orleans Division. "The revolving door (of the criminal justice system) is no longer in effect."

FBI agents currently work with homicide investigators. DEA agents assist NOPD's Crime Abatement Team, and ATF agents help investigate gun-related crimes.

Bernazzani says wiretaps have picked up "bad guys" referring to the often-missed deadline to press murder charges as "misdemeanor murder" because so many suspects are set free.

"They know there's no crime lab," he adds, "and if witnesses keep their mouths shut, they're out in 60 days. ... We're trying to break the yolk of the bad guys thinking they can get off in 60 days."

When 19-year-old Ronald Holmes was found shot to death on the morning of Jan. 20 in the Iberville public housing development, a crowd of onlookers, and possible witnesses, lined the yellow police tape. But as officers removed Holmes' body from the abandoned apartment, no one stepped forward to recount what they may have seen or heard.

"Without witness testimony, we've got nothing," Deputy Chief Anthony Cannatella, an officer at the murder scene, told The New York Times.

Cops and others say the biggest obstacle to arresting and convicting violent offenders remains convincing witnesses to come forward. Community advocates answer that people often refuse to talk because they don't believe police will keep them safe -- or that the DA's office and the courts will keep offenders behind bars.

"People looking at this from the outside may think people are cowards," says Rev. John Raphael, the pastor at Central City's New Hope Baptist Church and a longtime community organizer. "But if you talk to police, and then the police leave, you still have to live here. You can't leave."

That lack of confidence was underscored in a Central City crime survey taken for the Metropolitan Crime Commission. A mere 43 percent of residents responded that the police were trustworthy.

"This is an indictment of the police department," says MCC president Rafael Goyeneche. "What it all boils down to is what's the public perception of the police? And how do officers interact with the public?"

In an effort to garner public trust, Mayor Nagin and Chief Riley announced the day after the protest march that community policing expert Lee Brown will assess how police interact with the public and how the department handles citizen complaints. Since then, NOPD has redirected officers from desk duty to the districts, bringing the number of officers at the districts to approximately 900. Each first and second shift officer spends one to two hours walking the same neighborhood streets every day, Riley says, in an effort to gain community trust and intelligence.

Riley says it's too early to critique results, but he notes that when he worked as the commander of community policing in the housing developments under Supt. Richard Pennington, residents got to know officers by name.

"Residents would call Officer John Brown because they had gotten to know and trust Officer John Brown," he says. "But they would have never called 911 or 821-2222."

In another effort to bolster sagging public trust and conviction rates, Riley says NOPD will install cameras in all police and traffic cars by the end of June. Officers will also be fitted with microphones to record conversations with citizens.

"Certainly, it will enhance our professionalism," he says. "And certainly it will put the public on notice."

Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are also being installed in police cruisers in an effort to decrease response times. Prior to Katrina, NOPD received approximately 52,000 calls a month. Today, that number is closer to 35,000 calls. Response times to 911 calls average six and a half minutes, Riley says, adding that the GPS tracking technology should bring the time to less than 3 minutes.

With the tracking technology, a dispatcher will know which cruisers are close to crime scenes -- as opposed to sending a car from one side of the district to a call on the other side. The system also will ensure that officers head to crime scenes right away.

"GPS will hold our officers accountable," Riley says.

Officials are also seeking help from the U.S. Marshal's Office in creating a viable Witness Protection Program. And based on national "best practices," the Council is working to establish an Independent Monitor's Office at NOPD.

"For the first time in this city," Carter says, "we have in the 2007 budget an office to redesign an independent monitor for the police department."

While officials acknowledge that the fight for funding remains a constant battle, council members say the city's 2007 budget has funds to raise salaries at Criminal District Court -- to attract more experienced prosecutors and court employees.

As a result, starting DA salaries will rise to $50,000 this summer.

Pay hikes for police, however, were noticeably absent from the budget. A first-year cop in New Orleans is paid a mere $33,000 a year. After a year, officers get a $4,000 raise. Neighboring parishes pay more, and Atlanta and Houston start officers in the high 40s.

Riley says he recently asked the City Council for $1.1 million to cover recruitment and retention funds, but no money has been allocated yet.

In light of "these extraordinary times," Riley says, he has asked U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu to convince Congress to allot enough money to bring entry-level salaries up to $50,000. He hopes that in three to four years, the city can absorb the costs on its own.

In the 18 months since Katrina, more than 420 officers have left NOPD -- at least 25 of them since Jan. 1. "We have got to find a way to stop the attrition rate," Riley adds. "Or we will be in a critical state in the next year or so."

One area still crying out for reform is the practice of "shotgun subpoenas" -- the habit of subpoenaing every name on the police report, cops as well as civilian witnesses, as opposed to subpoenaing only those who will be called to testify. It's another example of systemic problems that need to change.

The practice costs the city several million dollars a year in overtime pay for officers "who are just sitting around a courtroom," says Riley. It also takes officers off the street.

Moreover, witnesses can be subpoenaed as many as "10 times" before being called to testify, says Riley, who notes that some defense attorneys use that as a tactic to wear witnesses down until they just give up.

"If they can continue a case six or seven times," Riley says, "that witness isn't going to show up anymore."

Jordan counters that police reports often don't specify what each officer did or what each witness saw, so it's impossible for prosecutors to discern who should be called to testify.

"If you want me to get away from subpoenaing everyone on the police report," Jordan says, "police need to do a better job at delineating who did what, specifically."

The shotgun subpoena problem is a glaring example of the breakdown in communication between NOPD and the DA's office -- and of the kind of finger pointing in which the two men who lead those agencies continue to engage.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation is working to improve information sharing across all platforms of the criminal justice system. Over the next two years, the foundation will implement a technology-based system that will allow agencies to pull up every arrest report, warrant, evidence list and subpoena electronically -- rather than sift through the current paper trail.

Until then, Riley and Jordan say they talk on the phone frequently and meet as often as possible. Jordan went one step further to say Riley has even come to his home.

"Contrary to public opinion, I've met with Riley several times over the past couple months," Jordan says. "We cooperate because we both have the same objective, fighting crime."

Despite officials' claims of reforms and progress, citizens find it easy to get discouraged. All they have to do is turn on their TV sets or pick up the morning newspaper and see accounts of yet another murder or other violence crimes.

Reform movements have never been tidy or easy. Efforts to overhaul New Orleans' criminal justice system will be no different.

With the help of national experts, increased funding and continued public scrutiny, the system can become more efficient. But it will take time and a sustained, citywide effort.

"We have an incredible opportunity here in New Orleans to get it right," says Rev. Raphael, who led a large group of marchers on Jan. 11. "But this opportunity isn't going to last forever."

Citizens squeezed into a standing-room-only Feb. 12 crime - hearing before the City Council to show their dissatisfaction - with the high crime rate and an apparent lack of action to - cure the problem. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Citizens squeezed into a standing-room-only Feb. 12 crime hearing before the City Council to show their dissatisfaction with the high crime rate and an apparent lack of action to cure the problem.
"It's like the stars have aligned. People have had enough. - And the political will and leadership is there. We're in the - spirit of rebuilding New Orleans better, and fixing (the - criminal justice system) is part of that." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "It's like the stars have aligned. People have had enough. And the political will and leadership is there. We're in the spirit of rebuilding New Orleans better, and fixing (the criminal justice system) is part of that."
"We are moving at the federal level to send a message to - the bad guys that if we find a federal hook and convict, - you're going away for a long, long time. The revolving door - (of the criminal justice system) is no longer in effect." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "We are moving at the federal level to send a message to the bad guys that if we find a federal hook and convict, you're going away for a long, long time. The revolving door (of the criminal justice system) is no longer in effect."
"We want smart law enforcement. We want equitable law - enforcement. We want quality and professional law - enforcement -- all of which result in a safer city." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "We want smart law enforcement. We want equitable law enforcement. We want quality and professional law enforcement -- all of which result in a safer city."

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