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Major Decision Looms for New Orleans' City Council on Prison Facility

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By Seth DiStefano, Special to the NNPA from thefendersonline.com –

It’s not often that building a new prison might represent a watershed moment in criminal justice reform. But in New Orleans, Louisiana, that’s exactly what is happening.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the damage to the Orleans Parish Prison severely curtailed the ability of local authorities to maintain levels of incarceration that, until the storm hit, were the highest per capita in the country. For a city of approximately 465,000, the pre-storm prison capacity of 7,200 enabled one of the most dysfunctional and unfair criminal justice systems in the nation.

Following the destruction of Katrina, however, local governments had to build a correctional facility. What has followed can be called one of the most significant debates on criminal justice reform in the country, on one side are the local grassroots activists, criminal justice experts, and good government advocates, on the other, is the pro-incarceration, politically entrenched Sheriff who seeks to maintain one of the nation’s largest per-capita prisons.

Though the Sheriff’s initial proposal was for a prison with less capacity (5,800 beds as opposed to 7,200) than the original, it’s still far out of proportion when compared to cities of comparable size. New Orleans now has approximately 350,000 residents. Building a prison this out of balance with the population will only further enable the city’s troubling pattern of locking up the poor, people with mental disabilities, and persons of color who cannot afford the bail or fines that got them incarcerated in the first place.

Despite long odds, local activists and community based organizations waged a remarkable campaign to significantly reduce the size of the local prison. A recent Mayor’s report recommended a facility more in line with the area population. The report now awaits action by city council.

What happens next will certainly impact the future of criminal justice reform in New Orleans, a system that has traditionally been one of the most troubled in the nation.

Hundreds of pro-reform activists took out a full page ad in the Times-Picayune newspaper to support building an appropriate size jail.

Seth DiStefano is the Senior Organizer for the Criminal Justice Reform Project of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

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