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New Orleans Crime:“Front End” to “Back End”

A view from both ends of public safety

Joseph Daniel Fiedler illustration

Handcuffed and shackled, Bernell “Bussy” Williams, 22, views violent crime in New Orleans from what’s commonly known as the “back end” of the criminal justice system.

Dressed in rumpled orange prison jumpsuits, Williams and four co-defendants from the alleged Hollygrove neighborhood gang stand before U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle.

Each plead “not guilty” to charges including drive-by shootings and  racketeering, during an alleged feud over drug turf with the Hell City gang in Carrollton, from 2006 to ’12.

In New Orleans, a city with more than 1,000 murders during the last five years, efforts to stop violence break along a euphemistic divide.

Locals often speak of committing the majority of public resources either to the “front end” of the criminal justice system (improving education, job opportunities and recreation) or the “back end” (improving police coverage, more effective prosecutions and ample and secure prison space). As 2012 drew to a close, it was clearly a bad year for the “back end.”

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten – the city’s top crime fighter – resigned amid an Internet posting scandal involving trusted aides.

Joint efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice and city officials to make New Orleans safer by reforming the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison bogged down, partly over money issues.

Murders and shootings persisted, despite improved working relations between police and prosecutors. Mayor Mitch Landrieu scoured the country for successful violence-reduction strategies, but nothing seemed to work.

New Orleans (population 344,000) appeared poised to equal the 200 killings the city recorded in 2011, the nation’s highest murder per capita rate at 57.6 per 100,000 citizens.

Meanwhile, advocates on the “front end” of the local criminal justice system championed reducing crime in the New Year by strengthening families, schools, health care and job opportunities – a tall order.

This is a city where 41 percent (30,000) of all children lived in poverty in 2010; compared to a national average of 22 percent, according to the Agenda for Children, the local advocacy group.

Local activists and civic groups are forging ahead with various initiatives to steer local youth away from adverse encounters with police, the courts, the jails – and the Orleans Parish Coroner’s office.

They include Agenda for Children, now under new leadership.

Very Front End
Four years ago, on Jan. 15, 2009, George W. Bush left the White House.

In one of his last acts as president, Bush praised New Orleans educator and child psychologist Anthony “Tony” Recasner as a national role model.

“This is a nation where citizens show calm in times of danger, and compassion in the face of suffering,” the president said, adding: “We see America’s character in Dr. Tony Recasner, a principal who opened a new charter school from the ruins of Hurricane Katrina.”

According to a White House briefing paper, Recasner opened Samuel J. Green Charter School on Jan. 9, 2006, for 350 kids (kindergarten through eighth grade) after New Orleans’ “highly successful” Charter Middle School (the first charter school in New Orleans) was destroyed by Katrina’s floodwaters.

Recasner gave Bush a tour of Green in 2007, and the president delivered remarks on education at the school.

Today, Recasner is CEO of Agenda for Children, the nonprofit advocacy center with the bright blue sign (at 8300 Earhart Blvd.). He replaced founder Judy Watts, who retired in January 2011.

The center is a five-minute drive away from the site of New Orleans Charter Middle (at 3800 Monroe St.). The pioneering charter school Recasner founded in 1998 was located in the heart of the same tough Hollygrove neighborhood that was home to Bernell Williams and his alleged gang – as well as famed rapper Juvenile.

Before Katrina hit in 2005, Recasner and New Orleans Charter Middle registered the highest scores among non-magnet schools in the New Orleans Public School District.

Recasner views New Orleans’ crime from the “very front end” of the criminal justice system.

“We focus on getting the kids upstream,” Recasner says. “We believe if you get the kids really early, you really make a measurable difference down the road. You get a kid whose interests, talents and skills lead them in different directions than drugs and violence. Crime becomes a non-issue for kids who have broad interests and who are in engaged. That is the kind of kid we want to produce. You want healthy parents who produce healthy children who lead different productive lives.”

New Orleans Magazine asked Recasner to respond to vexing questions about local violence that a Tulane University criminologist raised in a House Judiciary Committee briefing on homicide prevention last summer.

Why does New Orleans have continuing high rates of violent crime and murder? “The only thing I can put my hand on is that we don’t have a robust enough economy to really engage a large number of kids,” Recasner says. “I don’t think we have a city where there are meaningful levels of engagement for males looking to engage in meaningful, productive activity. There is a lot of time to be aimless and without focus.”

There are too few jobs, internships, recreation – and alternatives to trouble.

He applauds the mayor’s efforts to revitalize New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, but adds that, “the opportunity to engage in organized sports isn’t as widespread as it used to be.”

Despite the economic downturn, he says, local youth are looking for jobs with meaning. “I don’t think it’s about working for money. I think it’s about doing work that has value – and work that values you.”

What are the direct and indirect costs of high rates of violent crime and murder? “What I see, with the young children who I work with, is that your potential is diminished when you lose your parent. We lose human potential when there’s a high murder rate because we never know what these kids could have been if we had been different towards them.” He continues, “We benefit from the gifts that individuals bring to the world through their talents, acts and skills. We never know how different our lives would have been had they lived. It’s a question that never gets answered. We don’t think about it much. We think about the circumstances, the drugs, the crimes and the environments.”

Recasner says he once attended an NOPD Comstat meeting on neighborhood crime trends. “I found it fascinating the way they track trends and crimes,” Recasner says. It also encouraged him to keep kids out of the criminal justice system. “I think about doing everything possible to help keep a person from ending up in that situation. It’s a web. Once you get connected, it’s hard to disentangle.”

The Back End
Back in federal court, Judge Lemelle hears chatter (again) from the Hollygrove defendants. The judge demands to know who’s talking. Williams raises a handcuffed hand. “Six months,” the judge says, sentencing him to six months for contempt of court. “Six months?”

Williams says, incredulous.

He is already facing life in prison.

He turns to follows the other inmates heading back to jail – the very back end of the system.

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