Thursday, February 15, 2007

E-Mail from Shelly Midura about Crime

Dear District A Resident,

The level of violent crime currently plaguing New Orleans is intolerable. I know you are all angry, impatient, and looking towards your city's elected officials for leadership and an appropriate response. I share your anger and impatience. Our stakes are no less than the recovery of the great American city of New Orleans. We need a smarter, more effective criminal-justice system. Without functional, evidence based, accountable and effective public safety there is no recovery. As an elected official, I get that. We have no higher priority than the safety of New Orleans. But reform means doing things differently if we want a different result.

New Orleans, you deserve accountability from your government. We have a responsibility to deliver. While it takes money to solve some of our crime problems, money alone will never be the answer. The city has allocated close to 1/3 of our general fund to the criminal-justice system. We were averaging over 100,000 arrests per year before Katrina in a city of 460,000 people. We had the nation's 4th largest city jail and the world's highest incarceration rate. We currently have more law enforcement patrolling our streets in New Orleans than we have ever had before in our city's history. Yet despite all the millions of dollars, record numbers of law enforcement patrols, massive incarceration, and hundreds of thousands of arrests, the bottom line is that these traditional policies have still failed to make us safer.

We have heard from countless citizens about the impact of crime on their everyday lives. Whether it's the murder count, whether it's the recent armed mugging in the parking lot of Gulfstream on St. Charles, the attempted break-in in broad daylight on the 1400 block of State Street, or the various other incidents of crime in District A or elsewhere in the City. We are on it. Public safety is our number one priority.

We are facing a crisis that threatens the survival of our great city and this crisis requires an immediate triage in response as well as a plan for the longer term. Short term steps are under way to address the crisis - increased police visibility, foot patrols, increased street lighting, and after-dark checkpoints around the city. In the longer term the Council has been actively engaged in mapping a reform process with the goal of increasing the effectiveness of all our city's multiple criminal justice agencies. We need our police and district attorneys to work more closely together to ensure quality investigations and better prosecution of violent criminals. We need a higher functioning system that works with all its parts more seamlessly and efficiently. We need greater accountability, increased transparency, and reforms derived from data, research, and evidence. As a member of the Council, I commit to you that I will be vigilant in oversight of our struggling criminal justice system. But in order to for us to truly survive this crisis we must do even more, we must rise to the challenge and begin to think altogether differently about crime.

My office has been actively engaged on the issue and has worked especially closely with Councilmember Head and Councilmember Carter who have provided great leadership by reaching out to best practitioners around the country to help New Orleans solve our crime problem and by working to hold our system accountable. As we've researched successful models around the country we've discovered how different our system is in New Orleans compared to others and we've found some lessons learned and basic principles to guide us as we rebuild our city's criminal justice system. The Boston model has taught us the importance of options for judges, for programs and a strong social services support infrastructure that New Orleans currently lacks. New York teaches us the importance of data in driving policy solutions and the allocation of resources whether it's the deployment strategy of police through compstat or whether it's the detention policy determining who belongs in jail and who does not. Efficiency has got to be one of our principles when we are already spending close to 1/3 of our general fund on police and detention and our city is strapped for funds with so many other existing financial responsibilities.

We've also learned the importance of professionalism versus politics. Just as I believe it makes good sense for levee boards to be managed by engineers instead of politicos, I also believe that we must minimize the influence of political power in our criminal justice system so that it does not compete with the interests of public safety. We must insist upon increased professional standards from police who are charged not only with making arrests, but also with conducting complex investigations, writing quality police reports, and engaging neighborhoods and soliciting witness and community participation in the crime fighting process. When only 2% of a police force has a college education it may adversely affect the quality of investigations and the strength of a criminal case. If Chief Riley requests it, I would fully support measures and funding incentives to aid him in recruiting and retaining more qualified police officers.

In November this council addressed the pay issue for police by increasing their salaries, along with other city workers, by 10%. The Council went even further with the District Attorney's office by increasing the salaries of prosecutors by 30% to raise the average starting salary from $35k to $50k. Our job is to equip these agencies with the tools they need to do their jobs and then to provide oversight to ensure they are administrating effectively. The crime committee council meeting on Monday at 1:30 is open to the public and is a function of our responsibility to provide oversight and hold departments accountable.

I am more than seriously concerned by Thursday's Times Picayune report that states that there has only been one conviction out of the 162 murders from 2006. No reasonable citizen can find that kind of performance by our criminal justice system acceptable. It is, in fact, outrageous. We have an across the board breakdown in multiple agencies. We need a closer working relationship between police and prosecutors to ensure investigations and cases are as strong as possible to hold violent criminals accountable. We need a detention system that reduces recidivism. We need courts that prioritize cases involving violent criminals who pose a serious public safety threat.

Crime is not the cause of a city dying. Crime is the symptom of a city dying. Crime is the sound of a city dying. If we truly want a final solution for public safety, we will need a much stronger public education system and we will need to expand our city's middle class by offering our poorer and working class citizens economic mobility with better paying job opportunities. And while the recent civic activism around the issue demonstrates how engaged you all are as citizens, I encourage you to remain organized and vigilant. I am reminded of the great success and reforms brought on by active citizens in reforming our system for levees and assessors by demanding they be managed by professionals rather than by politics. We need those same principles, public passion, and organization to reform our criminal justice and public education systems. Our city's recovery and long term future depend on it.

No comments: