This article was written in partnership with The Marshall Project. The Marshall Project is a non-profit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice systems. Follow it on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to sign up for its newsletters.
NEW ORLEANS -- Fatima Muse reaches for her phone to call her godmother. But then she realizes that she isn't there.
Portia Pollock, a victim of a stabbing attack, was killed in her home in June 2021. The murderer, who had a long criminal history and was currently on bail while awaiting trial for an armed robbery in which he was charged, drove off in her car.
Muse's loss has caused her life to be in chaos and has made her political views more complicated. On one hand, Muse holds deep convictions about injustice and brutality in the criminal justice system. She was tear gassed once for protesting police abuses in Ferguson Missouri. She now blames the system for letting a man who was accused of repeatedly using violence out of prison, which is a heart-breaking toll.
Muse stated, "This conversation that we're having now would probably be different if it weren't for the person I love who was killed." "I would probably be more lenient, liberal, talking with you about reform, people who deserve another shot, as well as how messed up the system is, particularly for Black and Brown people."
This dilemma is indicative of a political debate that has swept through the city. Recently elected progressive criminal justice officials face criticism due to an increase in carjackings, shootings, and murders during the pandemic. There are several high-profile cases, including the March murder of a 73 year-old woman. Four teenagers were also charged with second-degree killing. This political backlash is similar to the pressure placed on progressive officials in places like New York and Chicago. San Francisco voters have recently elected to recall District Attorney Chesa Bodin.
These questions are unique to New Orleans. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (a non-partisan criminal justice think tank), New Orleans has been a major center for mass incarceration. The National Registry of Exonerations released a 2015 report that found New Orleans to have the highest number of wrongful convictions.
Derwyn Bunton is the chief public defender of the city. He said this legacy was one reason why voters voted to change in 2020 and 2021. They elected two judges, a district lawyer, and a new sheriff, who all pledged to end the worst aspects of the status-quo.
Bunton warned that voters could be scared into making new decisions if they don't take the moment seriously and defend what they've won.
Many people are afraid. A June poll by a coalition crime prevention, civil right and business groups found that three quarters of residents described the city as unsafe, and 84% claimed that crime has gotten worse in the past year.
Similar stories are told in calls for service to New Orleans Police Department. There were 235 murder reports in the May 2022 year, nearly twice as many than the 116 that were reported in May 2019. During the same time, reports of shooting incidents doubled and reported carjackings tripled.
It is too early to know if the new policy changes made by elected officials have an impact on crime. Many of these changes are philosophical and difficult to measure. In a series hearings this year, several city councilmembers, all Democrats referred to what was called a "revolving doors" legal system. They cited low bonds that allowed violent crime suspects to be released before trial. A few residents and even a councilman have suggested the idea of sending the National Guard into the streets to assist with police work -- something the governor of the state has rejected.
Violent crime rose before any candidates on progressive platforms were elected to office. This is a fact that they claim shows the "old ways" haven't worked. This violence is similar to many other U.S. towns, regardless of whether or not they have pursued criminal justice reforms. Many residents are seeking answers and a person to blame for New Orleans's homicide rates, which have increased by the most since the outbreak of the pandemic. Voters may soon be able to determine if New Orleans is in the middle of an experiment or the end of one, with at least one judgeship opening.
Pollock, 60 years old, was a physical therapist who healed people. However, she could also test the limits of bodies as a black belt in martial arts. Pollock was a regular drummer in Congo Square, a park near her Treme house where musicians pay tribute to the enslaved Africans who used the space during slavery.
This is where Denise Graves first met Pollock. She was attracted to Pollock's "quiet leader energy." They became fast friends and musical partners.
Graves, who is a pastor and community leader, stated that she and Pollock had dreamed of buying an RV so they could travel the country teaching African cultural workshops and healing work. Graves, now 69, has to work on her healing, which has been slow. Graves said, "I believe there's an area of you that is broken." Graves stated that there is a part of you that cannot be fixed.
Graves, like Muse is not everyone's idea of a "tough on crime" ideologue. Graves calls prisons "expansions of enslavement" while calling the criminal legal system "criminal." She also feels strongly about the importance of consequences.
Graves stated, "If we continue to tell people that you can carjack and get off, then you can carjack and you'll be free, you can get off, you can get off -- murder will happen."
Bryan Andry, 46, was charged with armed robbery in summer 2020. After being in prison for several months, Angel Harris, a reform-oriented judge, released him in February 2021. He killed Pollock four months later.
Andry pleaded guilty in May to manslaughter and was sentenced for 35 years imprisonment.
At sentencing, he apologized for his actions and stated that he would trade his life to get Pollock's. He also said that he couldn't remember the crime because he was under the influence of drugs.
Andry's criminal record dates back to 1991, when he was 17 years old. He spent the majority of his adult life in prison. According to court records, Andry was a serial robber, thief, gun and drug possession criminal.
Andry's case is not common in the United States. Although there isn't much data available for New Orleans and Louisiana, research from other areas of the country shows that most people who are released pre-trial are not charged with committing any new violent crimes.
However, pollock's death caused furious City Council members to question the release of Andry on bond. Local columnists also reacted.
Harris supported her decision to reduce Andry's bond to $245,000 from $95,000, which she said was still a substantial amount. According to court records, his lawyer had suggested that Andry should take care of his mother with arthritis. Harris pointed out that Andry had to be given drug treatment and have an ankle monitor before he was released. Due to an administrative mix-up, he was not wearing a functional watch when Pollock was killed.
Harris stated that Pollock's death was heartbreaking. However, judges cannot control what decisions people make.
Judges in Louisiana and other states can consider the defendant's risk to their community when setting bail amounts. However, they can also consider other factors, such as the strength of evidence against the defendant. Harris stated that there were weaknesses in the evidence against Andry during the 2020 armed Robbery. She also considered the inability to provide rehabilitation services at the Orleans Parish prison. Covid-19, which was being spread in jail at the time, was not being given vaccines.
These considerations have been ignored by the city's judges over the years. A federal judge ruled that a number the city's bond-setting procedures violated the U.S. Constitution in 2019. This was primarily because he did not inquire into people's ability and failed to consider other alternatives to jail and bail.
Harris is a former civil rights lawyer and public defender. Harris has spent much of her career representing victims of such practices. Harris said this experience shapes her approach to being a judge. Harris stated, "I believe we cannot continue doing things in the same way we have been doing them."
Court Watch NOLA is a non-profit that collects data from New Orleans courts using volunteers. It said that it was hard to determine if Harris or Nandi, another judge elected in 2020 on a similar platform to Harris, are ruling in ways that are clearly different than other judges. According to preliminary data, Harris had the lowest average number of guilty pleas per court session of any of the 12 city criminal court judges. Campbell was the second-fewest, but she's closer to the average.
Harris made a list of guilty pleas during her term. These are 94% of all U.S. criminal convictions. Harris wanted to make these things a thing she could change as a judge. Harris sees it as her duty to highlight all the consequences of a conviction. She believes that people have the right and the right to be tried.
She said that the best thing about her job is being able to see defendants who are eager to share positive news from their lives. The sign-in sheet is next to her courtroom. It contains affirmations for all who enter, including "You're beautiful, loved, and needed", and "You're alive for a reason."
Harris stated that some people might think it's silly or naive. But, Harris also said that he wouldn't have ran if he didn't believe in these principles.
She sneers at the thought that she is "weak" in her view of crime and people who commit violence.
Harris stated, "I have nothing against accountability." Harris said, "I believe there is a process that gets to that point of accountability. We can't skip steps because of fear. Fear is driving many decisions and many conversations right now.
Harris' victory in 2020 made her the first New Orleans judicial candidate to defeat an incumbent in New Orleans for about 50 years. Campbell and Harris were the only two elected from seven "Flip the Bench", judicial candidates who were supported by two new political actions committees. The groups had mixed success, but it proved that New Orleans judges are not exempt from running on systemic criticisms of mass incarceration.
Bruce Reilly, who is the founder of Voters Organized To Educate (VOTE), a group that raises money to support progressive candidates, stated that "In future judicial election, the standard that we're trying setting is that you have -- at best -- moderate on the judicial part."
Jason Williams, a former city councilman and popular new district attorney, was not VOTE's first choice for 2020. They initially backed another progressive candidate, Jason Williams, who didn't carry Williams' baggage. This was in the form a federal tax fraud indictment. Williams denied the allegations and said they were "politically motivated". A trial is set for later this month.
Williams' campaign was inspired by the post-George Floyd moment and promised to reimagine the "dual-purpose system" that he claimed had offered justice for the well-connected and wealthy but punished the poor and Black people. As progressive D.A.s before him, he also appealed to a kind of economy of justice. He appealed to an economy of justice, just like other progressive D.A.s.
Williams, 49, was born and raised in New Orleans. He was a Tulane University student in the early 1990s when Tulane University had one of the most high violent crime and conviction rates in the country. He said that the 'tough on crimes' (giving the maximum time to the most people and mass-producing convictions) didn't make the city safer.
Williams reflected on his first 17 months as an office holder and made sure to mention recent convictions almost in the same breath with his efforts towards reform. Williams recognizes that violent crime has increased and that his office is responsible to address it. He said that he does not believe that the increase in carjackings should be a reason to ignore the Constitution. Instead, he believes that it is a good idea to disregard evidence and allow innocent persons to be arrested and convicted.
A civil rights division has been the centerpiece of Williams' reform agenda. It has released approximately two people per week since Williams took office. Its mission was to review possible innocence cases, to examine excessive sentences and to free people held in prison for unfair prosecutions.
Louis Mitchell is one example of such a person.
Mitchell was 19 years old when he was accused of rape. He denies the accusation. Rape was a capital offense at the time, so a Black man accused in raping a white victim had little chance of being acquitted by a jury. Mitchell faced likely death even though the victim couldn't pick him from a list, so he pleaded guilty to accepting two life sentences. Lifers were granted parole in 10 years and six month after that time -- hence the "10-6ers".
In the 1970s, however, state legislators delayed parole eligibility for first 20 years and then 40 years before closing it completely.
Mitchell had completed 55 years of hard labor in Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. Williams filed a joint motion last Oct for Mitchell to plead guilty to time served. This allowed for Mitchell's release. Williams' office claimed Mitchell was denied parole. Mitchell was represented by the Louisiana Parole Project. "The former D.A. Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the organization, stated that "the former D.A.
Mitchell was heard before Campbell, one the two progressive judges elected for 2020. He described his experience of being in her court that day as "like someone finally saw" him. She finally saw me as the person I was, and not my skin color.
Williams's authorization of releases like this has not been criticized. Critics have instead pointed out that more people are being arrested for violent crime and are pleading misdemeanors under the new D.A. or having their cases dismissed as compared to before. The Metropolitan Crime Commission, which publishes weekly crime data in cities, has criticised Williams. It found that 74% of violent felonies were solved this way in 2021. In 2019, 41% of cases were resolved under the previous D.A.
Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the commission -- who is also a former prosecutor -- said that this means that violent offenders who were arrested by the police go right back on the streets." He said, "People just walked away," and that translated into the current crime surge.
Williams' spokesperson said that they have not seen the figures from crime commission.
Williams pointed out that Covid-19 court closures and Hurricane Ida have impacted his administration's ability of to resolve cases. He also stated that his office screens cases more rigorously than Leon Cannizzaro's predecessor. Williams stated that the old attitude was "We don’t care if it’s good or poor, or if the right person is selected or if the Constitution is followed." To coerce witnesses to appear, Cannizzaro's office used fake subpoenas. In some cases, Cannizzaro sought to jail crime victims in order to obtain their testimony. Cannizzaro, now working for the Louisiana Attorney General's Office, didn't respond to a request.
In response to criticism, Williams has made changes in his office's procedures. Williams was critical of the practice of using sentencing enhancements in cases involving guns. This has resulted in longer prison sentences. He also tried to charge minors in violent crimes as adults, which he had promised not to do.
This angered progressive groups such as VOTE. But Reilly, one the leaders of the group, stated that it was important to place Williams' tenure in perspective. He said, "It's a million-times better than anything else we've seen here in this city," he added.
Reilly said that he does not see the current backlash from public and political opinion as stopping the momentum for positive change. "This is nothing for those of us who did this work in 2000s and '90s," Reilly stated. "Look at how far we have come. The bell can't be unrung.
The election of Susan Hutson, Orleans Parish sheriff, in December 2021 was a clear indicator that voters are not changing their minds. This occurred well into the rise in violent crime. Hutson, a former independent monitor of the police department, won on a reformist platform promising to improve conditions at Orleans Justice Center, one of the most notorious and deadly city lockups in America. After a judge ruled that the jail's conditions were in violation of people's rights, Hutson replaced another "tough-on crime" politician, ex-Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
She stated that priority No. She stated that "priority No. 1" is to prevent deaths in the jail. Hutson made an unprecedented move to temporarily remove all her staff from the city courtshouse and assign them to the jail. She said that the jail was chronically understaffed. The entire courthouse was temporarily forced to go virtual after the move.
Hutson loves to answer questions by introducing new ones. When asked about the City Council's plans to increase surveillance technology for arrests, Hutson wondered aloud: "What will you do with them?" We just want to fill that jail. What then? Then what?
He also received "soft on crime” criticisms but he ignored them. Hutson stated, "Crime has gone down and the sheriff has done what he wanted in this place." It ebbs, and it flows.
Hutson believes that reform-minded officials, no matter how high the crime rate, will be targeted. She stated that she intends to keep her vision for the office alive, regardless of political pressure. Hutson believes that the city will be able to recognize her results in four years when she is up for reelection.
Muse, Pollock’s goddaughter is still left with her grief, and a lot of uncertainty in politics. While her core beliefs on systemic racism remain the same, she is now more open to candidates for criminal justice positions. She is a lifelong Democrat and said that she would consider voting for a candidate of another party, even though it is uncomfortable for her to do so.
Muse, a marriage counselor by profession, is skilled at weighing tension. She asks, "Is there any way to improve the system and not treat people as harshly but hold people accountable?"