Pubdate: Sun, 26 Dec 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: A18
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Fausset, Reporting from New Orleans
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United States)


Fewer Small-Time Offenders Are Jailed, Leaving More Time to Fight 
Serious Crimes.

In the squad room of the New Orleans Police Department's 6th 
District, a large red square is painted on the wall behind the 
lectern, as if a cop had acted on some Abstract Expressionist impulse.

It is a wordless reminder to officers here, one that could serve as a 
new motto for the city's criminal justice system.

"It means, 'We don't arrest squares,' " said Sgt. Yolanda Jenkins, a 
community outreach specialist.

By "squares," she means the everyday citizens and tourists who may be 
guilty of some minor infractions but who aren't contributing to New 
Orleans' scourge of violent crime. And cutting them some slack 
represents a major philosophical shift for a city that has the 
nation's highest per capita jail detention rate but has struggled to 
rein in its most serious crimes.

This year, New Orleans is also on track to have the nation's highest 
per capita murder rate.

In recent months, police, prosecutors and politicians have taken 
steps to put fewer minor offenders behind bars, in the hope that will 
free up resources to attack more serious crime. The initiative 
culminated in city ordinances passed this month that give officers 
the option of handing out court summonses to anyone suspected of 
prostitution or marijuana possession, in lieu of hauling them off to jail.

"For us, it's a shift. ... We don't need to be arresting people for 
silly, minor things," said police Deputy Superintendant Kirk M. Bouyelas.

City officials are loath to call it a softening of its stance on 
vice, noting that the penalties for the offenses will remain the 
same. But these and other changes will probably mean that thousands 
of future small-time offenders will not see the inside of the city's 
notorious Orleans Parish Prison, which, with its violence and lack of 
hygiene and medical care, was deemed to be violating the 
constitutional rights of inmates in a September 2009 finding by the 
U.S. Justice Department.

The changes may also alter the dynamic of law and order in a city 
that calls itself the Big Easy but has long exhibited extremes of the 
permissive and the punitive -- to the confusion and chagrin of many 
an out-of-town reveler.

In New Orleans, wobbling drunkenly down Bourbon Street may not earn 
the attention of police. Nor will a trip to one of the French 
Quarter's many strip joints. But anyone caught smoking a joint or 
soliciting prostitution was typically sent to the labyrinthine jail 
that locals call Central Lockup, known well before the Justice 
Department report as a place of almost mythic unpleasantness.

For the tourists who find themselves in the parish prison, "it's a 
shocker," said Sgt. T.K. Lane, who works the Bourbon Street beat -- 
which, she reminded, is not Amsterdam, despite appearances. "A lot of 
the people we put in jail are really under the impression that 
anything goes," she said.

But the focus on minor crime resulted in a clogged court system. 
Bouyelas said that at one point, 70% of the cases police sent to 
criminal court were for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The problem has been addressed on numerous fronts. In 2008, the City 
Council began allowing police to issue summonses for low-level crimes 
such as urinating in public or trespassing. In the spring, the 
Legislature changed Louisiana law so that police, in many cases, are 
no longer required to arrest people with out-of-town warrants for 
such issues as unpaid parking tickets.

In October, the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which has been 
helping the city rethink its justice system since Hurricane Katrina 
in 2005, announced it would create a federally funded system to 
screen for and release non-dangerous suspects awaiting trial, a 
system already used in more than 400 cities and counties around the country.

Bouyelas doesn't think police will want to issue summonses to 
tourists found with marijuana, because they wouldn't be likely to 
show up in court. But he said the city was considering testing a 
"sobering center," with nurses and a psychiatrist, where drunks could 
be sent in lieu of arrest.

The failed police response to Hurricane Katrina, with its mass 
desertions and shooting of unarmed civilians, resulted in Justice 
Department oversight and a vast federal investigation of police 
misconduct. But the mistrust found in poor communities predates the 
storm, and some are hoping the new protocols will help mend the relationship.

If low-level offenders know they won't be going to jail, said local 
activist Norris Henderson, "it de-escalates the encounters people 
have with the police, because the civilian now knows he's going to 
get a citation. ... I think the Police Department is acknowledging 
that we have a problem."

Criticism of the changes has been scattered. Late Tuesday night, 
Officer Marshall Scallan worked the Bourbon Street beat, navigating a 
tide of misrule and issuing warnings to a group of known hookers and 
other troublemakers.

With the new approach on pot and prostitution, he said, "you're going 
to see a lot more of it out here." The idea of a sobering center he 
found almost laughably touchy-feely for such a rough-and-tumble town.

Fans of the new ways, including Marjorie Esman, executive director of 
the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, counter that New 
Orleans must try something different.

"Maybe it'll work and maybe it won't," she said. "But it won't work 
if we don't try it."  
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