Posted on July 11, 2022

New Orleans Battled Mass Incarceration. Then Came the Backlash Over Violent Crime.

Jamiles Lartey, NBC News, July 6, 2022

Fatima Muse still reaches for the phone to call her godmother, before remembering she’s not there to pick up.

Portia Pollock was stabbed to death in front of her home in June 2021. The killer, who had a long criminal record and was out on bail awaiting trial in an armed robbery, drove off in her car.

The loss threw Muse’s life into chaos, and it has put her personal politics into tension: On the one hand, she holds deep convictions about the brutality and unfairness she sees in the criminal legal system — she was once tear-gassed protesting police abuses in Ferguson, Missouri. But she now also blames the system for letting a man accused of repeated violence out of jail, at a soul-shaking toll.

“This conversation we’re having right now would probably be a lot different if it wasn’t the person that I love who got killed,” Muse said. “I would probably be a lot more lenient and liberal, talking to you about reform, people deserving another shot, and how screwed up the system is, especially for Black and brown people.”

Her dilemma illustrates a political debate consuming this city, as recently elected progressive officials in the criminal legal system face criticism tied to a rise in shootings, murders and carjackings during the pandemic. The violence includes several high-profile incidents, like the killing of a 73-year-old woman in March who was dragged alongside her car during a carjacking; four teenagers have been charged as adults with second-degree murder. The political backlash resembles the pressure on progressive officials in cities like New York and Chicago. In San Francisco, voters recently recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

But New Orleans’ relationship to these questions is unique. The city has long been an epicenter of mass incarceration, as the most populous city in a state “that locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank. A 2015 report by the National Registry of Exonerations found that New Orleans had the highest rate of wrongful convictions in the country.

Derwyn Bunton, the city’s chief public defender, said that this legacy was a major reason voters here were willing to try something new in 2020 and 2021 — electing two judges, a district attorney and a new sheriff who all promised to rein in the harshest aspects of the status quo.

But Bunton also cautioned that voters “can be scared back into making different decisions if we don’t take this moment seriously, and really defend the ground we’ve won.”

Many residents are scared. In a June poll commissioned by a coalition of crime prevention, civil rights and business groups, three-quarters of respondents described the city as unsafe and 84% said crime had gotten worse over the previous year.

Calls for service to the New Orleans Police Department tell a similar story. In the year ending in May 2022, there were 235 homicide reports, roughly twice the 116 reported in the year ending in May 2019. Over that same period, reported shooting incidents also doubled, and reported carjackings tripled.

It’s too early to say if policy changes by newly elected officials are having an effect on crime. Many of the changes have been philosophical and are difficult to measure. But in a series of hearings this year, multiple city councilmembers, all Democrats, referred to what they called a “revolving door” legal system, citing low bonds that allowed people accused of violent crimes to go free before trial. Some residents, and even a councilman, have floated the idea of sending in the National Guard to help police the streets — a move the state’s governor has rejected.

Violent crime began rising before any of the candidates elected on progressive platforms took office — a fact they argue shows the “old way” hasn’t worked. The increase in violence here also mirrors many other U.S. cities, regardless of whether they pursued criminal justice reforms. Still, with New Orleans seeing one of the largest homicide rate increases of any U.S. city since the start of the pandemic, many residents are looking for answers — and someone to blame. With at least one judgeship possibly opening this year, voters may soon have another chance to decide if the city is at the beginning of a new experiment or at the end of one.


The man who killed Pollock, 46-year-old Bryan Andry, was accused in an armed robbery and a carjacking in the summer of 2020. He remained in jail for months until a newly inaugurated judge, Angel Harris, who ran on a reform platform, agreed to reduce his bond in February 2021. Four months later, he killed Pollock.


Harris defended her decision to lower Andry’s bond from $245,000 to $95,000 — which she described as still a significant amount. His lawyer had argued that Andry needed to take care of his arthritic mother, court records show. Harris noted his release required that Andry to receive drug treatment and wear an ankle monitor. He was not wearing a functional monitor when he killed Pollock, due to an apparent administrative mix-up.

Harris said that she was saddened by what happened to Pollock, but that when judges are setting bonds, they “unfortunately cannot control the decisions individuals ultimately choose to make.”


Court Watch NOLA, a nonprofit that uses volunteers to collect data on New Orleans courts, said it was difficult to assess yet whether Harris or Nandi Campbell, another judge who was elected in 2020 on a similar platform, are ruling in ways that are obviously different from others on the bench. The group’s preliminary data did suggest that Harris averaged the fewest guilty pleas per court session out of all of the city’s 12 criminal court judges. Campbell averaged the second-fewest, although she’s much closer to the average.

Early in her term, Harris listed guilty pleas — which account for 94% of criminal convictions in the U.S. — among things she wanted to change as a judge. She sees it as her obligation to emphasize all of the consequences of a conviction, including losing certain rights after leaving prison and facing barriers to getting a job, and to make sure people know they have the right to go to trial.


“In future judicial elections, the standard we’re trying to set is that you have to be — at worst — moderate on the judicial side,” said Bruce Reilly, who runs Voters Organized to Educate (VOTE), one of the groups that raised money to support more progressive candidates.

The new district attorney, Jason Williams, a popular former city councilman, wasn’t VOTE’s first choice in 2020. Initially, they backed another candidate running as a progressive who didn’t have Williams’ baggage — in the form of a pending federal indictment on tax fraud. Williams has denied the charges and called them “politically motivated.” A trial is scheduled for this month.

Williams’ campaign drew on the energy of the post-George Floyd moment, promising to reimagine a “dual-purpose” system that he said had long offered justice for the wealthy and connected, but meted out punishment to Black and poor people. {snip}


Reflecting on his first 17 months in office, Williams made sure to mention a slew of recent convictions in nearly the same breath as his efforts toward reform. He recognizes that violent crime is up, and that his office is responsible for addressing it. But he said he rejects “the idea that because there are more carjackings, we should ignore the Constitution, that we should disregard evidence and allow innocent people to get arrested and convicted.”

The centerpiece of Williams’ reform agenda has been a civil rights division that is responsible for freeing roughly two people a week from prison since he took office. The unit’s mandate was broad: to re-examine possible innocence cases, excessive sentences, and people who were stuck in prison due to unfair prosecutorial conduct.


{snip} Instead, critics have pointed to the fact that under the new D.A., more people arrested for violent crimes are pleading to misdemeanors or having their cases dropped when compared to the prior administration. The Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit that publishes weekly city crime data and has been critical of Williams, found that in 2021, 74% of violent felony cases were resolved this way. It was 41% of cases in 2019 under the prior D.A.

“That means that the violent offenders that had been arrested by the police department go right back out on the streets,” said the commission’s president, Rafael Goyeneche — a former prosecutor himself. “People just walked out,” he continued, “and that translates into the crime surge that we’re seeing right now.”


Williams has changed some of his office’s practices in response to the criticism. He has used sentencing enhancements in some cases involving guns, triggering longer prison terms, a practice Williams criticized during his campaign. He has also charged minors as adults in certain violent crimes, something he’d promised not to do.


Reilly also said he doesn’t see the current political and public opinion backlash stopping the momentum for change. “For those of us who have been doing this work in the ’90s and 2000s, This is nothing,” Reilly said. “Look how far we’ve come. You can’t unring the bell.”