Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans’s jail population exceeded 6,500 inmates. When we came into office in 2010, we made a commitment to the people of New Orleans to reform our criminal justice system and reduce the jail population.
So we got to work.
We launched initiatives like the NOLA FOR LIFE strategy and the Network for Economic Opportunity to connect people to opportunity. We started focusing on pre-trial risk assessment and supervision, issuing summonses instead of arrest, fast-tracking low-level offenders and working to address the racial and ethnic disparities in the system.
Additionally, New Orleans has made great strides to reduce the jail population with the help of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge and the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. Since the challenge’s implementation in 2016, we have seen successes.
We have launched the Community Advisory Group to hold myself and other local officials accountable for our commitments, and to represent community interests. The Sheriff’s Office hired a Justice System Administrator who is responsible for identifying people who fall through the cracks and stay in jail too long. The Criminal District Court approved a protocol to increase use of Release on Recognizance for defendants who don’t pose a risk to public safety.
Through this hard work and collaboration with a number of agencies across New Orleans, we have been able to reduce the jail population to around 1,400 inmates. While we are proud of this success, the fact is New Orleans remains the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country. There is still more work to do.
Specifically, as it relates to offenders with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, we have found that our New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers have few options available to manage this population. In New Orleans, we recognize the challenges that the criminal justice system faces to provide a solution for this population and will launch the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, an alternative to arrest, in 2018.
Modeled after Seattle’s LEAD program, New Orleans’ LEAD program will allow people at risk of arrest or summons to be diverted to wraparound services in lieu of entering the jail. Upon encounter, officers redirect individuals to an intensive case manager who connects them to services such as behavioral and mental health treatment.
Often, jail time for individuals experiencing a crisis can exacerbate the problem without ever getting to the root cause, and lead to repeat jail and hospital stays. By diverting individuals to services that address the underlying issues, LEAD participants become more connected to the community and less likely to reoffend.
As a precursor to LEAD, through the Safety and Justice Challenge, the Vera Institute of Justice assisted the city in coordinating with NOPD, Women with a Vision and other local organizations to reach shared goals for those facing prostitution charges. In May 2017, we released a policy instituting the use of municipal prostitution charges instead of felony or state charges, making the charge eligible for the Crossroads Diversion Program.
In the first 81 days after implementing this policy, arrests for prostitution decreased, with 91 percent of arrests handled in municipal court.
In New Orleans, we are proud to launch the LEAD program because it allows us to connect individuals to necessary holistic, community-based services. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our brothers and sisters in need to ensure they are connected to the right opportunities is the right thing to do. It is how we are building the city of our dreams.
*This post originally appeared on the National League of Cities’ blog, Cities Speak.