Whether it’s the senseless shooting of Chef Nathanial Zimet or the equally senseless death of another youth in Central City, we all know violence pervades our daily existence. And many residents simply resign themselves to the idea that it is just a part of living in New Orleans.
Johnetta Pressley, media and communications director for the Orleans Parish Public Defenders office, is not one of those people.
“Violence is a learned behavior,” she says. “It is a serious public health problem that spreads like a disease and we need to treat it as an epidemic,” she says.
Just like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johnetta and the OPD is committed to finding strategies to conquer the disease and stop violence before it begins.
We all know public defenders represent impoverished clients in court, but they do way more than that.
“We also provide resources for clients, “ she says. “Best practices shows that connecting clients with resources is the best way to increase safety.”
The defenders’ supportive relationship with their clients makes them uniquely qualified to offer and refer resources.
“One of our attorneys worked with a man who had four convictions,” she says. “The attorney presented the option of treatment and the man was connected to those services.”
Because this client is now dealing with the problem that drove his crimes one can hope he will find a path of recovery and not be convicted a fifth time. It’s one of the strategies recommended by the CDC and others.
“It saves money and time and you end up with a human being who is more productive,” she says. “We try and look at the human being and not at the criminal. People respond when you treat them with respect and dignity.”
Through building coalitions and meeting with community leaders and grass-roots activists, Johnetta and the OPD maintain one of the city’s best guides to resources–one that she hopes will soon be online.
She is also a passionate volunteer with Solutions not Shooting. SNS seeks to stop shootings and killings in New Orleans using a unique and comprehensive combination of outreach work, case management, conflict mediation, community mobilization, and public education.
She’s helping to build coalitions with the goal to have volunteers and staff on the streets to intervene in situations that could become violent. They will offer alternatives to violence and the all-important element–connecting people to resources.
Johnetta is a New Orleans transplant, originally from Virginia, but now proudly calls New Orleans home.
“I love the openness of the city and the conversations you have with people," she says.
Through her work at OPD and her volunteer efforts, which also include working at Israelite Baptist Church, Johnetta is committed to fighting the disease of violence and endeavors to celebrate the way people truly want to live their lives.
“So many people believe that the criminal justice system and incarceration is the only solution," Johnetta says, "but the people and communities I work with have not resigned themselves to this failure. They want positive change.”