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Filed 6:00 a.m.
07.06.2022
News

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

After decades of a “lock them up” approach, voters put progressives in key criminal justice posts. Now a rise in violent crime is their toughest challenge yet.

NEW ORLEANS — 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.

This article was published in partnership with NBC News.

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.

Portia Pollock, a 60-year-old Black woman with short gray hair, smiles at the camera while sitting in a park.

Portia Pollock was killed in June 2021.

“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.”

A Black woman wearing a purple dress, sits on a park bench looking pensively at a picture.

Fatima Muse was left with grief and political uncertainty after Pollock’s death. “Is there a way to make the system better and not treat people as harsh, but also hold people accountable?” Pollock’s goddaughter says.

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.

Pollock, 60, healed bodies in her day job as a physical therapist, but she could also test bodies’ limits as a black belt martial artist. She was a regular drummer at Congo Square, the park near her Tremé home where on Sundays musicians honor the enslaved Africans who used to drum and dance there during slavery.

That’s where Denise Graves met Pollock, attracted by what she called Pollock’s “quiet leadership energy.” The two became fast friends and music partners.

A 69-year-old Black woman wearing an orange-yellow dress and a white seashell necklace raises her arms in the air during an outside gathering. Individuals playing various drums are seen in the background.

Denise Graves, a pastor and community organizer, raises her arms in the air during a gathering to remember Pollock in New Orleans on June 13, 2021.

Graves, a pastor and community organizer, said she and Pollock dreamed of one day buying an RV to drive around the country doing healing work and teaching African cultural workshops. Now, Graves, 69, is left working to heal herself, and that work has been slow. “I think there's a part of you that breaks. There's a part that you think cannot be repaired,” Graves said.

Like Muse, Graves is no one’s idea of a “tough-on-crime” ideologue. She calls prisons an “expansion of enslavement” and says the criminal legal system is “criminal” itself. But she also has strong feelings about the value of consequences.

“If we keep telling people you can carjack, and you’ll get off, you can carjack, you’ll get off — murder is going to happen,” Graves said.

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.

Andry pleaded guilty to manslaughter in May and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. At sentencing, he apologized and said if he could trade his life for Pollock’s, “I would.” He said that because of the influence of drugs, he didn’t remember the crime.

Andry’s criminal history dates to 1991 when he was 17, and he spent most of his adult life in state prison. When he was outside, he racked up a string of robbery, theft, and gun and drug possession arrests, court records show.

Nationally, cases like Andry’s are uncommon. There’s little reliable data for New Orleans or Louisiana specifically, but research from other parts of the country has found that most people released pretrial are not arrested for committing new violent crimes.

Still, after Pollock’s killing, furious City Council members questioned the decision to release Andry on bond and local columnists seethed.

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."

A smiling Black woman is wearing a judge’s robe with a white-beaded collar necklace.

Judge Angel Harris has faced political backlash for decisions which some have tied to her progressive platform after being elected to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in 2020.

In Louisiana and most other states, judges can consider a defendant’s risk to the community in setting bail amounts, but they can also consider factors that might pull the other way, like the strength of the evidence against a defendant. Harris said some weaknesses in the evidence against Andry in the 2020 armed robbery factored into her decision, as did the lack of rehabilitative services at the Orleans Parish jail. At the time, COVID-19 was also spreading in the jail, and vaccines were not yet being distributed.

Historically, judges in the city have done a poor job of taking these considerations seriously. In 2019 a federal judge held that a number of the city’s bond-setting practices violated the U.S. Constitution, mainly by not inquiring into people’s ability to pay, and by failing to consider alternatives to bail and jail.

A former public defender and civil rights lawyer, Harris spent much of her early career representing people affected by practices like these, and said that experience frames her approach as a judge. “I truly believe that we can't continue doing things the way that we've been doing them,” Harris said.

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.

The best part of her job, she said, is seeing defendants who are excited to update her on the positive things happening in their lives. Next to the sign-in sheet in her courtroom is an affirmation for those who enter: “You are beautiful, you are loved, you are needed” and “You are alive for a reason.”

Harris said that “some people may think it's frou frou, or some people may think it's naive, but I wouldn't have run if I didn't truly believe in these principles.”

She bristles at the idea that any of this makes her “weak” on crime or on people who commit violence.

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“I have nothing against accountability,” Harris said. “I also believe that there is a process to get to that point of accountability, and we can't skip steps in the process because of fear. What scares me right now is that fear is driving a lot of decisions and a lot of conversations.”

Harris’ 2020 victory made her the first judicial candidate to beat an incumbent in New Orleans in about 50 years. She and Campbell were the only ones elected among seven “Flip the Bench” judicial candidates supported by two new political action committees. Although the groups’ success was uneven, the effort proved that running on a systemic criticism of mass incarceration was not disqualifying for a judgeship in New Orleans.

“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. Like other progressive D.A. candidates before him, he appealed to a kind of economy of justice: that spending less time on minor crimes, and on things that shouldn’t be crimes, would give prosecutors more time and resources to tackle violent crime.

Williams, 49, was born in New Orleans and was a student at the city’s Tulane University in the early 1990s, when the city had one of the highest conviction rates and violent crime rates in the nation. “What they call ‘tough on crime’ — making sure you give the maximum amount of time, to the maximum amount of people, mass-producing convictions — that didn't make us safer,” he said.

A Black man wearing a gray suit sits at his desk in his office.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, elected in 2020, created a civil rights division that re-examines innocence cases and excessive sentences. Critics of Williams have argued his policies have contributed to an uptick in violent crimes, an argument he disputes.

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.

Some of those people include “10-6ers” like Louis Mitchell.

In 1967, at age 19, Mitchell was arrested for rape, an accusation he denies. Rape was a capital offense then, and a Black man accused of raping a White woman had virtually no chance of acquittal in a jury trial. Even though the alleged victim could not pick him out of a lineup, Mitchell was facing likely death if convicted, so he pleaded guilty and accepted two life sentences. At that time, lifers were routinely granted parole after 10 years and six months — thus the “10-6ers” moniker.

But in the 1970s, state lawmakers delayed the window for parole eligibility, first to 20 years, then 40, before closing the window altogether.

Mitchell had served 55 years of hard labor at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola when Williams filed a joint motion last October for Mitchell to plead to time served, paving the way for his release. Williams’ office argued Mitchell had been unfairly denied a chance at parole. The Louisiana Parole Project, which represented Mitchell, said that’s something Williams’ predecessor would have never done. “The former D.A. was not interested in reviewing past sentences,” said the organization’s executive director, Andrew Hundley.

Mitchell’s hearing was before Campbell, one of the two progressive judges elected in 2020. He said of standing in her court that day: “It was like someone finally saw me. She finally saw the person I am, not the color of my skin.”

Williams hasn’t received much criticism for authorizing releases like these. 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.

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“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.”

A spokesman for Williams said this week they had not seen the figures from the crime commission.

Williams has pointed to court closures due to COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida as factors that cut against his administration’s ability to resolve cases. But he also said his office is screening cases in more stringent ways than his predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro. Williams said the old attitude was: “We don't care if it’s good or bad, or if they got the right person or if they follow the Constitution. We will accept it anyway.” Cannizzaro’s office used fake subpoenas to coerce witnesses into appearing, and in some cases, sought the jailing of crime victims to get their testimony. Cannizzaro, who now works for the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

That infuriated progressive groups like VOTE. But Reilly, one of the group’s leaders, said it was also important to put Williams’ tenure in context. “It’s a million times better than anything we’ve seen in this city, to be clear,” he said.

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.”

One indication that voters have not changed course was the election of Susan Hutson as Orleans Parish sheriff in December 2021, well into the surge in violent crime. A former independent monitor for the police department, Hutson won on a reformist platform, promising to overhaul conditions at the Orleans Justice Center — one of the deadliest and most notorious city lockups in the country. She also replaced a more “tough-on-crime” politician, former Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who was the subject of a federal court-ordered monitor after a judge found that the jail’s conditions violated people’s rights.

She said that “priority No. 1” is preventing deaths at the jail. On June 13, after two people died in the jail in separate incidents — a fight and an unrelated medical emergency — Hutson took the unprecedented step of temporarily pulling all of her staff from the city courthouse and reassigning them to the jail, which she said has been chronically understaffed. The move briefly forced the entire courthouse to go virtual.

Hutson likes to answer questions with a series of new ones. Asked about plans the City Council made to use more surveillance technology in arrests, she wondered aloud: “What are you going to do with them? We're just going to fill up that jail? Then what? When we have it overflow, then what?”

The new sheriff, who has also faced “soft on crime” criticisms, brushed them aside. “Crime has gone up and down while the sheriff has done whatever he wanted to do in this place,” Hutson said. “It ebbs and flows.”

She anticipates that reform-minded officials will be attacked regardless of the crime rate, and said she plans to follow through on her vision for the office, regardless of the political pressure. Hutson is confident that in four years, when she’s up for re-election, she’ll have results that will resonate with city residents.

Meanwhile, Muse, Pollock’s goddaughter, is left with her grief and a great deal of political uncertainty. Her core convictions on systemic racism haven’t changed, but she looks differently now at candidates running for positions in the criminal legal system. A lifelong Democrat, she said she could even consider voting for a candidate from another party — though it’s uncomfortable for her to admit.

A marriage counselor by trade, Muse is used to weighing tension. She wonders aloud: “Is there a way to make the system better and not treat people as harsh, but also hold people accountable?”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the organization that authored a 2015 report on exonerations. It was the National Registry of Exonerations. The article also misidentified an organization characterizing New Orleans' high incarceration rate. It is the Prison Policy Initiative.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, He was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.