Alternatives to Arrest in New Orleans

by Matt Kelley

The New Orleans City Council will consider a measure this week to avoid arrests for thousands of low-level crimes, including marijuana possession and prostitution. The city has been making solid strides toward reforming its criminal justice system, and this proposal would help police focus on more serious crime by giving minor, non-violent offenders a summons to appear in court, rather than formally arresting them.

Please join me in calling on New Orleans leaders to pass this measure and to refrain from unnecessarily expanding the city’s jail.

A victims advocate told WDSU-TV that the city’s move was tantamount to the “decriminalization” of certain offenses and would harm the city’s quality of life. But in fact, this is more like “de-arrest-ification.” The penalties will be the same if the suspect is convicted, but these crimes will no longer carry the de facto punishment of a night in jail (and the accompanying stigma), a missed day of work and time away from one’s family, all for being merely suspected of a crime. We need to move away as a culture from the perception that harsh treatment is the only way to stop crime.

New Orleans is the world’s most incarcerated city and Elizabeth wrote in this space last week about competing proposals to build a new city jail. More than 100 members have already urged the city council to build a smaller jail — switching from arrests to summonses will help the city use fewer jail cells to achieve justice.

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ criminal justice system was a wreck. Cases were backlogged, the jails overflowed and complaints about law enforcement conduct poured in. The city hasn’t entirely cleaned up its act, but it is encouraging to see post-storm reforms pointed toward “smart on crime,” moving away from the lock-’em-up reputation that Louisiana has long held. The city has already cut its arrests in half by moving many crimes from arrests to summonses. The reform under consideration this week will extend that.

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