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Beyond the Normalcy of Death

Our criminal justice system is in crisis. We need more than finger-pointing from city leaders.


"It was like a scene from one of those raids in Iraq; we had dead bodies all over the place," Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard said of the city morgue, following a week of violence that ended on Father's Day. By week's end, 13 people were dead -- including nine violent deaths in less than 28 hours. Among the dead were two 13-year-old boys shot in separate, unrelated incidents.

The bloodshed triggered a bout of finger-pointing among city leaders. Mayor Ray Nagin blamed the district attorney's office and Criminal Court judges, and District Attorney Eddie Jordan found fault with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the judges. But the public doesn't want blame swapping -- it wants solutions. Our criminal justice system is in crisis, and our city has become the nation's urban murder capital for two years running.

"We have a major system problem," says Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans. "The notion that the police alone will keep us safe is wrong. We need citywide leadership to close the crevices between the institutions of the criminal justice system."

Money's tight. Most criminal justice agencies are understaffed or lack seasoned veterans. The following are some ideas to resolve the crisis, based on interviews with veteran participants and observers of the local criminal justice system:

The Mayor. Nagin must designate a qualified, skilled person in his office to coordinate the fragmented components of the system: the NOPD, the district attorney's office, the criminal and municipal courts, the criminal sheriff's office, the coroner's office, and the clerk of Criminal Court. Nagin last year appointed Terry Ebbert to oversee all city public safety matters, but homeland security issues understandably have dominated Ebbert's agenda. Nagin also should reconsider his rejection of an independent monitor for probes by NOPD's internal affairs bureau and the City Office of Municipal Investigation.

The District Attorney. The district attorney's crime-fighting efforts suffer from poor pay, a lack of experienced prosecutors, and external and internal communications problems. (The district attorney could not receive email until last year.) Jordan is considering a worthy proposal by the Metropolitan Crime Commission to create a career criminal bureau, staffed with better-trained, better-paid veteran prosecutors, which would focus on getting violent criminals off the streets. Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Bill Hunter, whose jails process 85,000 to 90,000 arrests a year, applauds the concept. The program could be modeled after the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office's successful "Code 6" program. The MCC also is proposing that the district attorney hire former veteran prosecutors on a part-time basis to help ease the state's largest criminal caseload. Better screening of cases will keep innocent people from languishing in jail and get violent offenders to trial faster.

NOPD. Police typically and aggressively respond to public outcries with saturation patrols and "sweeps" that result in mass arrests. "There is a growing realization by the public that what is needed is not just arrests, which require only the legal standard of probable cause, but convictions, which require proof beyond a reasonable doubt in court," says MCC president Raphael Goyeneche. We agree. The public wants to hear Jordan and Police Chief Eddie Compass resolve to focus on major felony arrests that lead to convictions. In addition, an independent monitor could help NOPD address credibility problems with police testimony in Criminal Court, either through re-training, disciplinary action, or both.

Criminal Sheriff. The Louisiana Victim Notification (VINE) system, a 24-hour computerized operation that would inform crime victims of the whereabouts of people charged with serious crimes, was supposed to be phased in statewide by this fall. But VINE has not reached Hunter, who would be responsible for its operation locally. Originally authorized by the Legislature in 1999 and priced at $1 million a year statewide, VINE last year was operating in 18 states and three Louisiana parishes, including neighboring Jefferson. The program can build witness and victim confidence in the criminal justice system and help cops and prosecutors more efficiently track their caseloads ("On the VINE," July 29, 2003).

Clerk of Criminal Court. Clerk of Court Kimberly Williamson-Butler's pleas for more money to protect evidence in major felony cases have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. Some observers believe this might be political "payback" from Butler's troubled days as Nagin's chief administrative officer. If so, it's a shame. There's too much at stake.

Coroner. Overwhelmed prosecutors are missing critical meetings with coroner's pathologists before murder and rape trials; the problem predates Jordan's administration, Minyard says.

The Public. The crushing social problems of our city provide fuel for even more crime. Teachers and social service providers must be recognized for their roles in the long-term war on crime. The public must get more involved -- now. "This is a moral issue," Scharf says. "As long as the victims remain lower-class, addicted and armed, the violence is somehow acceptable. But when higher-class people are killed, it becomes a political issue. But by then, it's too late. We have simply got to get over this normalcy of death."

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