A ripple runs ahead of a wave

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Guest opinion

Matt Davis in his recent story on The Lens gave a shallow interpretation of the ongoing campaign by a diverse group of New Orleanians who understand that a bigger jail has not and will not make our city safer.

The ad in The Times-Picayune urging the mayor and City Council to build a smaller, safer, right-sized jail rather than a mega jail is not a one-shot deal. Davis wants to count the number of phone calls made in less than one day as a measure of the campaign’s success.  We know better than to gauge such a major issue by such a limited indicator.

Look at the cross-section of residents who have signed on. Look at the building interest by people in our community to take a stand (CEO of Baptist Community Ministries Byron Harrell’s op-ed piece in The Times Picayune being a great example) or the increasing media examination of this issue. (WWL did an extended segment on their morning news show this week). And while he is at it, look at the City Planning Commission’s report that states that the Sheriff is proposing a 5,800-bed jail.  (Not sure what kind of investigation other than word-of-the-sheriff uncovered the 4,200 number that Davis quotes).

It is not easy to go up against the sheriff’s wishes in a city that struggles with the level of violent crime that New Orleanians face daily.  People might want to think that a bigger jail is the answer – but no amount of evidence supports that answer. Many in the criminal-justice community and other New Orleanians understand this. Over three-quarters of the people in Orleans Parish Prison are being held for minor, non-violent offenses. This is terribly costly, inhumane, and ineffective. We have more people in jail per capita than any other city in the United States – by far.  It hasn’t worked so far to make us safer, so why would an even bigger jail be the answer?

Counting phone calls is ridiculous.  Raising the level of civic discourse on this issue is worth every penny paid by the more than 300 people who signed on to the ad. Maybe next time, Davis will wait a little longer than half a day before he decides whether a strategy to build community involvement in a vital civic issue is successful.

Linda Usdin, who contributed to and was named in the advertisement, is founder of swamplily,llc.

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