Thursday, October 1, 2009
Will The Obama Administration Bring Justice to New Orleans’ Criminal Justice System?
Recent news reports have highlighted Attorney General Eric Holder’s stated intention to rebuild the department’s civil rights division. According to the Washington Post, the division, “Filed only one discrimination case on behalf of a black voter from 2001 to 2006 and, through a series of hires, systematically placed lawyers ideologically aligned with the Bush administration - some with little to no civil rights experience - in permanent civil rights jobs. More than half of the division's career lawyers left in the past eight years, some taking decades of expertise with them.”
As the New York Times declared in a recent editorial, “The Bush administration declared war on the whole idea of civil rights, in a way that no administration of either party had since the passage of the nation’s civil rights laws in the 1960s.”
Attorney General Holder’s changes in the department are already being felt locally. Last weekend, federal agents closed down New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge for several hours, apparently for the purpose of evidence collection and crime-scene reconstruction. This is another sign that the federal government appears to be serious about investigating the criminal actions of the New Orleans police department.
As we wrote in this blog a few weeks ago, investigators are apparently looking into the police killings on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Katrina, as well as the Adolph Grimes shooting, police and vigilante killings in Algiers, and more.
Here in New Orleans, there is much more to investigate, at every level of our criminal justice system.
The news of the investigation on the bridge came just after the release of a Department of Justice investigation, which found that conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) violate the constitutional rights of prisoners.
According to the investigation, “prisoners at OPP are not adequately protected from harm, including physical harm from excessive use of force by staff and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Prisoners at the jail also receive inadequate mental health care, including proper suicide prevention, and there are serious deficiencies in the ways the medications of prisoners are managed.”
Last week also saw the release of a survey by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which found that New Orleans magistrate judges regularly violate rights, including failing to properly determine probable cause in 83 percent of first appearances.
“An arrestee’s first appearance is where the magistrate judge, among other tasks, sets bail, appoints counsel, determines whether or not a warrantless arrest was made with probable cause and allows individuals to exercise their fundamental rights,” said CCR Legal Director Bill Quigley. “Instead, we found the courts rushed through first appearances, on average spending less than two minutes per case – this is a troubling indication of system-wide failure to uphold the U.S. Constitution.”
It’s clear we have systemic problems, and we need systemic solutions. Having a real civil rights division in the Justice Department for the first time in nearly a decade is a good first step. But we also need pressure at the grassroots, fighting to hold both local officials and the federal government accountable.