Sheriff Susan Hutson testifies in front of the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee on March 11, 2024. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Several of the measures passed during the whirlwind special session on crime at the state legislature in Baton Rouge, which wrapped up earlier this month, are raising concerns in New Orleans. 

The measures are likely to significantly increase the jail and prison populations throughout the state. On Monday, the City Council’s criminal-justice committee spent much of its meeting hearing about how the measures will affect New Orleans itself. 

A new mandate that all 17-year-olds be charged as adults, and held in adult jails, is likely to move the city’s jail population even closer to the population cap of 1,250 set by the City Council, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson told the committee. 

Since that age group is challenging to work with, Hutson believed that the move could also affect staff retention, exacerbating the jail’s staffing shortage, which could move to “unmanageable levels.”  Hutson also saw increases in population tied to other measures, including the state’s end to parole and good time and its toughened stance on probation and parole violations, she said. 

Meanwhile, NOPD Chief Anne Kirpatrick reiterated that a law allowing people to conceal firearms without a permit will jeopardize the department’s ability to keep the city safe during Mardi Gras and other events. 

Some city leaders have been cautiously critical of Landry’s crime strategy. As the special session launched in mid-February, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she had “concerns” regarding that the legislation passed during the special session would “not effectively address crime at its root causes and could impact how we go about our everyday lives.”

District Attorney Jason Williams went further. In an interview with WBOK, he compared the crime session to the backlash against Reconstruction in the late 19th century, when state governments across the South implemented Jim Crow measures that mandated racial segregation and curtailed the newly granted rights of Black citizens to vote and participate in government. 

Actions and reactions are well-documented in history, Williams said. “You had Reconstruction, you had the Civil Rights movement, you had the social justice reckoning after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbury, and you saw an enlightened electorate, and you also saw enlightened leaders lean into that moment, try to meet it, and try to change some of those institutions to be more fair and be more equitable,” he said.  “Every time that has happened…that pendulum keeps swinging.”

Yet those same officials appear eager to collaborate with Landry’s administration on some initiatives. Chief Kirkpatrick has applauded the Governor’s plan to establish a permanent state police troop in the city, despite concerns among civil rights organizations and the federal government regarding the department’s racial biases and use of excessive force. 

Even before the governor took office, DA Williams had signed an agreement with Landry, then the state attorney general, allowing the AG’s office to prosecute any cases stemming from a state police arrest or investigation. That agreement effectively puts Williams’ predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro, the AG’s criminal-division director, in charge of a larger swath of local cases – even though Williams’ run for office was replete with mentions of Cannizzaro as a checkered character, responsible for over-aggressive and unethical prosecution. 

After Monday’s committee meeting, City Councilman Oliver Thomas told The Lens that he was concerned about the lack of details regarding local agreements with the Louisiana State Police and state AG’s office — including questions around where the LSP troop, dubbed Troop NOLA, will operate, who they will be reporting to, and whether or not they will abide by consent-decree provisions that govern NOPD officers. 

“Why don’t we know that ahead of time?” Thomas said. “We welcome the help. But when you come into my house you at least ought to tell me how you’re going to help me.” 

Jail population

Even before the crime session, the New Orleans jail population had been hovering near the 1,250 limit set by the City Council in 2019. Hutson has resorted to sending some pre-trial detainees to Angola, in part to reduce the population. 

She now has to grapple with the possibility that pre-trial stays will lengthen, because of the state’s effective end to parole and “good time,” where sentenced prisoners earn credit, to shave time off their sentences, for good behavior and participation in prison programs. Hutson believes that fewer defendants will be less willing to enter into plea deals, extending the amount of time they are incarcerated in her jail pre-trial. 

“Folks may not take these deals, and will sit in our facility longer,” Hutson said. 

A bill that increases incarceration for technical violations of probation and parole will also lead to more people locked up in the facility, she said. Plus, the inevitable increases in the state prison population will likely slow down transfers to those facilities for people who have been convicted and sentenced to prison time.  

But perhaps the biggest change will be the influx of juveniles moving into the jail starting on April 19, when state law will move the age of criminal responsibility back to 17, after it was shifted to age 18 in 2016. The new law mandates that all 17-year-olds once again be treated as adults in the criminal legal system – and be held in adult jails. 

Youth under age 18 must be held in a separate wing of the jail from adult detainees, with full sight and sound separation, according to federal law. But researchers and advocates warn that juveniles in adult facilities are still at higher risk for sexual and physical abuse, and more likely to die by suicide. In 2016, 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas, died after he hanged himself in his cell in the New Orleans jail. 

But that has not been an issue for a few years. Though a handful of juveniles have been brought to New Orleans adult jail in recent years, no juveniles have been housed at the adult jail for an extended length of time in New Orleans since at least April of 2021, thanks to an understanding between judges, the mayor’s office, and the DA that the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center is the appropriate place for anyone under 18. 

That housing designation has held true even when the DA has made the decision to charge juveniles as adults. 

But under the new law, local officials won’t have that discretion. To accommodate the juveniles, Hutson said, the jail will need to empty two 30-person pods, and implement new educational programming, as required for anyone under 18 who does not have their high school diploma.

It will end up being costly. “Children are more costly, because they have more requirements,” Hutson said. “More doctors, more food requirements, more exercise, and other requirements that boost that cost up.”

Permitless concealed carry

Though the state’s efforts are considered more punitive, NOPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said that the permitless concealed carry measure stands in the way of law enforcement, by making it more difficult for her officers to keep guns off the street.

Over the past several years, the department has ramped up its proactive gun enforcement. That has meant a significant increase in misdemeanor arrests for illegal carrying of a firearm — usually related to individuals concealing a gun without a conceal carry permit. (Some have raised concerns about the significant racial disparities among those and other gun arrests, and questioned the legality of some stops.)

But Kirkpatrick said that with permitless concealed carry, officers will be significantly more limited regarding who they can stop.  During Mardi Gras, officers confiscated 111 guns, Kirkpatrick said. But had the new law been in place, they would have only been able to seize half that amount. 

She also said that she will need to re-train all NOPD officers on “Terry” stops, when officers briefly detain someone they suspect is involved in a crime.

Currently, state law still does not allow someone to bring a weapon into certain places — such as schools and establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. 

City Councilman Freddie King III asked Kirkpatrick whether or not she thought certain areas of the city — such as Bourbon Street and the Marigny Triangle —  should be exempt from the permitless concealed carry provision. 

She said that she would go even further.

“Not only do I think it makes sense, I think the entire city of New Orleans should be carved out,” she said. “A one size fits all state legislative bill does not make sense for New Orleans.”

New Orleans Rep. Alonzo Knox has filed a bill to be considered in the current legislative session that would designate the French Quarter, the Downtown Development District, and an area around the Convention Center as firearm-free zones.

Lawmakers may be inclined to move in the opposite direction, however, opening up more spaces where it is legal to bring a firearm. Currently, there are measures filed at the legislature that would allow the carrying of guns in some restaurants with alcohol licenses, and another that would let teachers carry concealed guns in schools. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...