Scrutiny From the Attorney General

And a bit of extra personal interest

Joseph Daniel Fiedler ILLUSTRATION

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this year got an earful about crime in New Orleans from students at Tulane University – moments after announcing his 18-year-old daughter would enroll at the school.

“I’m proud that, this fall, Maya will become a member of this university’s freshman class,” Holder told a standing-room-only crowd at Tulane’s Uptown campus, during an address on voting rights. “So, I want all of you – especially my daughter – to know that I plan to become a familiar presence here at Tulane.”

Holder, who heads the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to reform both the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison, said he’s already working with Mayor Mitch Landrieu on rebuilding the city’s criminal justice system.

The students let the nation’s chief law enforcement officer know they were inpatient for safer streets, a concern amplified by the Hullabaloo campus newspaper’s headlines of an alarming increase in students victimized by off-campus armed robberies, assaults and burglaries. One coed said she was robbed at gunpoint while waiting for a campus shuttle bus at an Uptown street corner.

Cassie DuBay, president of the Tulane University Law School Student Bar Association, told Holder that citywide, crime in New Orleans is high as its ever been post-Hurricane Katrina.

“We have been averaging about one murder per day. There isn’t much faith in the New Orleans Police Department because the public believes the officers are corrupt and undermanned. Would you consider additional federal oversight for the New Orleans Police Department because of the skyrocketing crime and the continued police corruption here?”

Holder said that the feds and the Landrieu Administration were working on a consent decree to end a pattern of unconstitutional violations of city police and other problems at the NOPD. “I’m actually optimistic that if we were to gather here five years from now that you’ll see a police department that’s fundamentally different and hopefully a crime rate that will be impacted by this new police department,” Holder told the audience on Feb. 3, 2012.

Another Tulane student asked Holder what the feds could do to help the under-funded public defenders office in New Orleans, implying innocents would languish in jail and the guilty would be set free if a backlog of criminal cases weren’t timely prosecuted.

Holder said he’s using the “bully pulpit” to call for more “access to justice” for the indigent nationwide.

He may have missed an opportunity to use his Tulane pulpit to advance the Department of Justice’s long-standing complaints of unconstitutional conditions at Orleans Parish Prison. They range from widespread physical and sexual violence, inadequate mental health care, medical neglect and poor suicide prevention.

Thirty-six inmates have died at OPP since January 2006 – six by suicide. Five of those six inmates died after the DOJ probe of the jail began in February ’08. The latest – retired Coast Guard Reserves Commander William Goetzee – allegedly suffocated himself in a cell Aug. 7, ’11, despite being placed on suicide watch. The New York Times said the decorated commander’s death in the troubled jail “mirrored” New Orleans’ “most trying ordeals of the past decade.”

Orleans Parish Prison has been the city’s house of pain since its founding as an institution under colonial Spanish rule. In 1862, famed British journalist William Howard Russell toured the jail, which included mentally ill women inmates. “I left the prison in no very charitable mood towards the people who sanctioned such a disgraceful institution.” (My Diary North and South, Bradbury and Evans, London 1863.)

In 1895, attorney Henry Castellanos, in his New Orleans As It Was, recalled that prior to the Civil War an annex to the jail, located at Marais Street and Orleans Avenue, was “principally used for the detention and punishment of slaves” and that conditions for mentally ill prisoners were a “sad commentary” of neglect by city government.

More recently, DOJ-issued reports deploring mental health care and other conditions at the jail in September 2009 and April 2012.

On Sept. 24, the feds joined a suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against Sheriff Marlin Gusman that may facilitate a settlement of the center’s class-action claims and the feds’ probe of OPP.

“The government’s intervention in this case will facilitate much-needed reforms at OPP in the fastest and most efficient manner,” U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said.

History suggests otherwise.

Generally, Gusman has described the complaints against the prison as either being addressed, resolved or unfounded. Gusman also says most of the government’s concerns would be addressed by building a new jail and a debate has roiled over the size of a new facility.

The city says it’s already pressed to find an estimated $11 million for reforming the NOPD.

In a recent letter to a federal judge, Byron Harrell, president of Baptist Community Ministries, a private foundation, stressed the importance of linking the reforms of the jail and the NOPD. “Understandably, DOJ views NOPD and jail findings as two separate problems to be addressed by two separate consent decrees.” BCM stressed there are important “linkages” between the two reform efforts. “The first is between arrest policies and the demand for detention space,” Harrell wrote. A second linkage is funding.

“The city of New Orleans will not have unlimited revenue to meet these two tests, and ongoing open examination of the costs and benefits will be essential … judicial review will be essential and valuable.”

Indeed, it appears now that keeping the campaign promise the sheriff made years ago to community activists – installing a independent monitor for the sprawling prison – would have increased public confidence in his administration today.

NEXT: The police decree

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