When I first ran for judge, I sought the support of a popular councilman and he said, “Arthur, why do you want to go to that cesspool?”
To a certain extent, he was right.
For most of us, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse at Tulane and Broad is viewed as “out of sight, out of mind” — until a high-profile crime occurs or a judge makes a decision that causes a public outcry.
People drive past that massive neoclassical edifice with no idea of what happens inside, unless they become a victim or a defendant or a juror. Within those walls, 75% of what ails our city is represented: mental health issues, drug addiction, inadequate education, unstable housing, and lack of economic opportunity.
And many of the crimes are nonviolent.
But, as the jail population climbs toward its maximum capacity – 1,250 – as set by the City Council, it’s clear that we must take a close look inside. We cannot reduce crime and be safe without remaking Tulane and Broad.
To truly remake Tulane and Broad means that the sheriff, judges, district attorney, public defender and clerk of court — while being mindful of adversarial roles, due process, ethics, and judicial impartiality — must work together to do the following:
- Develop an updated IT system with an algorithm that tracks cases from booking to final disposition, along with case management/e-filing for judges and attorneys. (We are watching closely what happens with the “pandemic money” – funds from the American Rescue Plan Act — allocated by the City Council, to bring this archaic system into the 21st century.
- Take a different tack with people charged with nonviolent offenses, to stop the revolving door that makes some of them “frequent flyers” in the courthouse. While defendants’ cases are pending, give them an opportunity to choose a different path. They can waive time limitations and receive treatment and other medical and social-service resources, if they have mental-health issues, drug addiction, inadequate education and lack of economic opportunity.
- If there is a successful outcome, the district attorney can reexamine the charge. If a person decides not to take the path, then the district attorney can proceed with prosecution.
If you can reduce some of the less serious, nonviolent cases, the system can put its focus where it belongs, on serious felony cases. Those cases are not being tried correctly unless these three steps are followed:
- Police give each case a professional competent investigation based on facts, evidence and law.
- Victims are heard.
- Defendants receive a fair trial.
Taking these actions will reduce jail costs, promote efficiency, treat people rather than jail them, and hold everyone accountable.
Beyond the walls of Tulane and Broad, there is also work to be done, to prevent crime. We know that crime decreases when economies are better and people can live stable lives. So we must:
- Protect, prepare and educate our children from prenatal care to 18
- Develop an economic plan that grows our middle class by providing career training, supporting entrepreneurship, access to capital, and economic development that fosters equity.
- Develop the NOPD as a business model for community policing to make communities safer.
If we can make these changes that affect Tulane and Broad, we can get closer to becoming the city we deserve.
Arthur Hunter is a former judge at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and a former NOPD officer.