Criminal Justice: Changing Course on Incarceration

Judge Calvin Johnson, Ret.  (Orleans Parish Criminal District Court) Mathilde Laisne  (Vera Institute of Justice, New Orleans) Jon Wool  (Vera Institute of Justice, New Orleans)

Published: Jun 17, 2015

Much has changed in New Orleans’ criminal justice arena in the past 10 years: two consent decrees forcing reform in the police department and at the jail, a public defender office built on national models as part of a statewide system, an Inspector General’s office with a focus on holding criminal justice officials accountable, the city’s first Independent Police Monitor, and an active Criminal Justice Committee of the City Council exploring policy reforms. The most ambitious set of changes has addressed the city’s dramatic overuse of incarceration in the local jail. Prior to Katrina, and for most of the last 10 years, New Orleans incarcerated residents in the jail at a much higher rate than any other city in the country. In a hopeful sign going forward, the city has reduced the number of people it incarcerates on any given day by more than two-thirds.

NOI10 banner


New Orleans is now at a pivotal moment. Incarceration is being challenged as the reflexive response to crime. As then-City Council President Arnie Fielkow summed up in 2011, “You cannot incarcerate yourselves into a safer city, and we have learned that over recent years.” But putting that lesson into practice in a fractured criminal justice system has been, and remains, an enormous challenge. Speaking earlier this year and looking to the future, First Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin noted, “One of the biggest challenges going forward is maintaining the philosophical shift we have achieved—to reserve the jail principally for those who are arrested for violent felonies.”

This essay explores these dynamics, how the profound failings of the system were laid bare as the floodwaters receded, what city officials and community groups did to reverse course, and the culture change that remains to be fully embraced.

Ten Most Incarcerated US Jurisdictions, 2005
jail incarceration rate per 1,000 residents


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Citations and sources can be found in the PDF copy of the report.