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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Soundings

Nicole Gelinas
Criminal Negligence
The feds are paying to rebuild New Orleans on a civic swamp.
Spring 2006

In the months after Katrina, violent crime took a holiday from New Orleans. One of the few good things about living there after the storm, residents told reporters, was that for the first time in decades the streets seemed safe. But horrific violence is seeping back into the Big Easy, and the feds appear unconcerned that they’re spending billions to rebuild physical infrastructure in a city with no functioning criminal-justice infrastructure—before Katrina or after.

Take just one March weekend, which proved that while Katrina transformed New Orleans forever, some things never change. On March 18 and 19, three New Orleanian males were shot to death in separate incidents. Murder One took place in the Iberville public-housing complex, just weeks after the city’s housing authority allowed some residents to move back in. The scene of Murder Two: a “second line” parade, a rich African-American tradition revived to lure evacuees back to New Orleans. Murder Three: a robber accosted and killed his victim on a quiet street.

It’s unsurprising that post-Katrina New Orleans would find itself plagued by murder. Before Katrina, the Big Easy’s arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing rates were shamefully low, explaining why New Orleans suffered from the highest per-capita homicide rate of any large city in the nation. But this protracted failure of leadership in dispensing justice didn’t wash away with the storm. New Orleans’s unique version of justice is back along with the murderers, because state and city officials haven’t attempted to reform their broken justice system.

Consider the story of 19-year-old Jamal Watson, formerly of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. More than a year before Katrina, Watson participated in what local prosecutors charitably called an armed robbery. The robbery ended in the shooting death of an innocent man, Nathaniel Robertson, Sr., who fled down Jourdan Street in a failed bid to escape the five robbers who had demanded his truck.

The homes and inhabitants of Jourdan Street are gone now. But Robertson’s death still demanded a measure of justice. The failed New Orleans law-enforcement system wasn’t likely to achieve that before Katrina, and it certainly didn’t achieve it after. Instead, prosecutor and judge alike have treated Watson’s case as one might treat a nuisance misdemeanor charge.

Of the five suspects who accosted Robertson in 2004, none ever faced charges for his murder. Watson, one of two men indicted before Katrina for the armed robbery, spent the months after Katrina in a Louisiana jail, following the evacuation of Orleans Parish Prison. In late January, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, a judge freed Watson with prosecutors’ assent after he pleaded guilty to simple robbery and took a sentence of time served. “OK, Jamal Watson,” the sentencing judge intoned, closing the case. “Good luck to you, man.” Watson now lives in Kentucky with his mother.

One might chalk this miscarriage of justice up to prosecutors’ difficulty in lining up testimony against Watson after Katrina washed out most of those who lived in New Orleans, save for the fact that even before Katrina, they hadn’t made any headway in the case for more than a year, having dropped charges against Watson’s codefendant last April.

But New Orleans did put at least one person in jail after Katrina: its criminal-court clerk. In early March, after a week of ducking an arrest warrant, Kimberly Butler went to jail for three days for contempt, in part for defying a judge’s order to cooperate with a former colleague appointed by the state to salvage an evidence room in a flooded downtown building. The judge couldn’t simply fire Butler for her alleged insubordination, as she is an elected official.

New Orleans could have spent late February and early March having a public discussion on how to reform its criminal-justice system. Then, it might credibly ask for emergency federal funding to pay the lawyers, judges, and support staff needed to process thousands of pending cases, including more than 40 capital cases, most of them opened before Katrina, as a good start toward showing evacuated citizens unsure about coming back that it is equipped to deal with the criminals who commit crimes after Katrina.

But, again, as with everything else in New Orleans post-Katrina, city officials haven’t risen to this difficult task. Instead, they spent weeks caught up in Butler’s political drama.

This is a shame. In the years before Katrina, New Orleans had slowly lost thousands of its productive middle-class citizens—black and white—to functional cities, because it couldn’t keep murderers behind bars. To escape Katrina, nearly all of the middle-class citizens left in New Orleans fled to other cities; most are still living elsewhere. New Orleans won’t get those citizens back until it can assure public safety.

As 31-year-old James Javers, an evacuee who came back to New Orleans to watch the violence-marred March parade, told the Times-Picayune: “Look at this. . . . We need the National Guard [back] in here. Katrina was a call to wake up, but we still haven’t woke up.”

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