Post-Katrina Turnaround

NPR’s Morning Edition has been running a series this week on the second anniversary of Katrina and how different segments of New Orleans are rebuilding. This morning featured a conversation with David Bell, chief judge of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, and it’s worth a listen.

Before Katrina, Bell explains, kids were routinely being arrested on charges as minor as curfew violation, and they would typically spend a few days locked up in the detention center awaiting their hearing–just enough time to befriend and swap cell numbers with the more violent offenders. You can imagine what this was doing for the recidivism rate. Graduation, in this context, didn’t exactly include caps and gowns; a curfew violator might be brought in a few months later for, say, assault, followed a few months after that by aggravated battery, and so on. “When we looked at our system we realized that we were breeding criminals,” Brown says.

Much like it did in so many other sectors of the city, the hurricane created the opportunity to drastically revamp the juvenile justice system. Tapping an influx of volunteers and money from outside the city–much of it federal emergency funds due to lapse next spring–the parish cleared its backlog and closed out more than 12,000 cases, and instituted new programs and policies designed to keep all but the most serious offenders out of detention. Juvenile crime is down 84 percent.

It’s a fascinating, dramatic turnaround, and a great case study. I was particularly interested to hear what the system looked like before the storm, to learn that in the eight months preceding landfall some 5,000 juveniles were arrested. Explaining that astounding statistic, and corroborating Bell’s description of the types of kids police were hauling in, Damekia Morgan, an organizer with the grassroots Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, told NPR correspondent Renee Montagne that kids were routinely hauled in for “trespassing, going into a neighborhood where you’re not supposed to be, standing on a corner in a crowd, pants sagging…”

The line about the pants sagging stopped me in my tracks. How far New Orleans has come, I thought, and how far the rest of the state has yet to go. Just this morning I read in the Thursday Styles section of the New York Times about a city ordinance passed in June in Delcambre, Louisiana, declaring saggy pants illegal–illegal! Violators–and take a guess what the profile looks like–can be charged $500 or served a six-month sentence. The nearby town of Mansfield, near Shreveport, has passed a law effective September 15 that will fine pants-saggers $150 or lock them up for fifteen days. And last week, the Times reported,

Atlanta Councilman C. T. Martin sponsored an amendment to the city’s indecency laws to ban sagging, which he called an epidemic. “We are trying to craft a remedy,” said Mr. Martin, who sees the problem as “a prison mentality.”

Prison mentality, indeed. Problem, clearly. Remedy? Try again. Somehow I don’t think criminalizing an entire demographic of fashion-conscious hip-hop fans (read: young African-American males) is the smartest way to tackle social ills in Atlanta, or Delcambre, or Mansfield, or anyplace else. Certainly won’t help alleviate that dreadful “prison mentality.”

I wonder, by the way, if the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, has considered passing a law that would target anyone caught wearing the collar up on his Lacoste polo shirt. Seems like a fair way to battle the city’s cocaine habit.

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