October 28, 2017

Public Safety Candidate Forum Report

Last week kicked off the final month of the New Orleans elections for Mayor, City Council Districts B and E; along with the run-off elections for Civil District Court Judge and the Louisiana State Treasurer. VOTE and the Power Coalition hosted a forum for City Hall candidates, focusing on issues surrounding public safety. Roughly 300 people turned out to both ask questions and hear answers as to what the next potential politicians have to say about the police, jail, prison, and preventive programs.

The first part of the evening focused on the City Council candidates, attended by Cyndi Nguyen (District E), Jay Banks (District B), and a representative for the campaign of Seth Bloom (District B).  The candidates all played to the audience who wanted to hear a drastically new approach to crime prevention and restoration of our communities. After 50 years of using the police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards to react to public safety challenges, many residents of New Orleans have long recognized that we are only digging the hole deeper- and living with the view.

“I’m not about locking people up,” said Cyndi Nguyen. Her opponent, incumbent James Gray, played into the cynicism of his critics by not attending the forum, which ran until 7:30 pm. Nguyen also adamantly said we need to focus earlier on our preventive practices, to “break the cycle of poverty,” and invest early in the access to quality education. The topic of charter schools didn’t specifically come up, but now we are a decade into the New Orleans experiment, including having so many young, temporary, imported teachers. A reckoning is overdue on public education, and all the roles it should fulfill.

“Incarceration is a business;” Jay Banks said righteously, adding that “if you build it, they will fill it.” This topic is especially important in District B, where the Sheriff and others are seeking to direct tens of millions of dollars towards a jail expansion in New Orleans- where we already have the highest pretrial detention rate in America. What Banks failed to point out was exactly who is paying their mortgages off the backs of people held in cages. Mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet, who is backed by the bail bond industry, has repeatedly talked about adding 100 people to the payroll of NOPD.

“My goal of hiring more police is not to lock people up,” Charbonnet told the crowd, eliciting more than a few groans, with many wondering what else they would be hired to do. By contrast, Nguyen said she would “support non-profits who will move the needle” on these issues. In the same way that EMT’s don’t move the needle on car accident prevention, police officers show up after the event has already occurred.

In case someone thought Banks was a radical reformer on mass incarceration, he almost shockingly told the crowd that, “I am by no means soft on crime, violent offenders need to be put under the jail. They need to be given two minutes of daylight sometime on Thursday afternoon.” He may not have realized how many people in the crowd have gone to jail and prison due to violent offenses, and how many more have a family member incarcerated for that reason.

There are two problems with willful ignorance of our elected officials regarding mass incarceration. First, too many seem to think that reducing penalties for people convicted of nonviolent offenses will solve the problems of our criminal justice system. Second, they often have an extremist view- as if we all either killed three people in cold blood (and thus buried under the prison), or we have some petty conviction that is holding us back in life.

Desiree Charbonnet spent a decade in Municipal Court, confronted with many cases that probably should not be in court at all, and a range of misdemeanor infractions. She told the crowd, “when you’re non-violent, I release you,” but this does not explain how 47% of our overloaded jail, the jail our Sheriff says is too small, are people accused of nonviolent offenses. Some in the crowd commented later how she has held people with gun possession charges, on a bond as high as $20,000. Her belief that expungements were a pathway to overcoming post-conviction discriminations was troubling, as hardly anyone with a conviction is eligible for expungement in Louisiana.

A video projector provided some statistics for people at the forum, including the reality that most people returning from prison spent over two years there. Each month, the DOC releases about 1500 people, with about a quarter of those people coming to the New Orleans area. We will see a bump for the next few months, courtesy of some legislative changes, but this number of returning residents will continue to mix with the few hundred people released each week from the jail. A large portion of those released spent over a month in a cage, with the bail too high, only to have the charges dismissed or be told “time served.”

Incarceration is an industry. It thrives upon people being kept in the “hotel,” with no vacancies, to justify all the activity buzzing around them. Each of the people feasting off this industry make choices. Nothing “just happens.” District Attorney Cannizzaro has pushed for more people to serve more years in prison than anyone per capita in America. He decides, on his own, which children get charged as adults (all, accused of violent crimes). He uses the habitual offender laws to threaten people into extreme guilty pleas, even for the smallest of crimes. And he provides endorsements for City Council candidates who he will later seek a larger budget from.

LaToya Cantrell talked about her fight to create a low-barrier homeless shelter in New Orleans, a place that is a considerable step up from being under the I-10 overpass, and with perhaps a bit of stability from which one can climb up the bottom rungs and out of the deepest societal holes. She had no elaborate transitional housing plan for the formerly incarcerated, but she cited the work of VOTE (who birthed The First 72+ reentry housing program) and understands that we need reinvestment into other programmatic areas.

Cantrell’s approach to balancing morality with reality is vastly different than the rhetoric of Jay Banks, who would have left everyone still buried under Angola’s prison chapel, and who (based on his rhetoric) would have called for the burying of every exonerated member of our community, including recently-deceased John Thompson.

Charbonnet and Cantrell were miles apart on the proposed expansion of the jail, which is being done under the pretense of “helping” mentally ill people. Cantrell has voted against the expansion in her time on the City Council, while Charbonnet claims we “can’t hold them in a regular hospital because they are in the Sheriff’s custody.” This presumes they need to be “held” at all. Granted Charbonnet is backed by District Attorney Cannizzaro, in addition to the fraternal order of police.

DA Cannizzaro is currently being charged with prosecutorial misconduct by the ACLU for creating fraudulent subpoenas, which resulted in numerous individuals being locked up for no reason at all. Cannizzaro reportedly forwarded an anonymous complaint about Cantrell’s use of her city credit card, based on research by Charbonnet’s campaign, to Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office. Cannizzaro continues to publicize his decision to forward the complaint, despite the fact that the office generally has a policy against commentary on ongoing investigations. Prosecutors rarely publicly contemplate charges against political candidates during active campaigns, as it indicates the office is being used for political purposes.

Complaints from Charbonnet’s campaign focus on Cantrell’s documenting her use of the city’s credit card for various expenses, including food and travel, and the timing of her reimbursement of the card. While Charbonnet’s campaign repeatedly labels Cantrell’s actions as “illegal,” the policy they reference applies to the city’s executive branch, and not the City Council. Both Cantrell’s campaign, as well as council administrators, report her use of the credit card as in line with the council’s policy.

Ultimately, this campaign should not come down to how promptly someone reimburses the City for an expense, or how we regulate the public/private lives of people in office. It should be about issues.

D.A. Cannizzaro, is a former Judge who apparently sees no ethical issues with using his office to elect judges, council members, and the mayor. And who exactly should we expect to investigate that?


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