New Orleans has the second-highest per capita rate of confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any city in the country – but too many of its leaders are displaying a callous disregard for the evidence-based steps that would stem the spread of this deadly disease.
Instead of following the recommendations of public health experts to reduce arrests and incarceration in response to this unprecedented pandemic, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is engaging in misinformation and fearmongering that puts all of us at risk.
In multiple cases, Cannizzaro’s office has used the pandemic as an excuse to keep people in jail – flouting the overwhelming consensus of public health experts and perpetuating harmful stereotypes against impoverished defendants. This is not only an affront to the truth – it is a grave threat to the health and well-being of the community at large.
Likewise, Mayor Cantrell and the police superintendent have said laws will continue to be enforced as usual – and arrests in New Orleans have continued unabated.
This is alarming because our parish jails suffer from a well-documented lack of adequate medical care, and often warehouse people in squalid conditions where they are more susceptible to disease. These inhumane conditions are now a threat to any Louisianan with a jail in their parish – and that’s all of us.
It is nearly impossible to follow the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – such as social distancing and disinfecting surfaces – when cleaning supplies and even functional sinks are scarce and every minute of the day is spent in close quarters with other people.
In addition, many of those incarcerated in our jails and prisons have no business being behind bars in the first place. The ACLU of Louisiana’s recent study found that 57 percent of people in jail had been arrested for non-violent offenses, and were being held simply because they could not afford to buy their way out.
That is why we have joined public health experts and community organizations in calling for the immediate release of individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, and for alternatives to arrest and incarceration in all but the most dangerous cases. We have called for the immediate release of anyone who is being jailed pretrial based solely on their inability to pay bail, as well as expedited parole hearings for the elderly in state prisons.
This is consistent with the broad scientific and medical consensus that cramming medically frail people into confined spaces will only exacerbate the spread of this disease and threaten the health of people on both sides of the jail walls. For example, Louisiana’s Medicaid Director recently testified that reducing the incarcerated population in Orleans Justice Center would slow the spread of the virus and reduce the threat to the greater New Orleans area.
We also expressed grave concerns with Governor John Bel Edwards’ executive order that would suspend legal deadlines for district attorneys to file charges against people who are held in jail. Such a move would undermine public health and result in a post-Katrina-like legal breakdown that would leave thousands of presumably innocent Louisianans to languish in legal limbo.
Mass incarceration will not keep New Orleans safe from crime – or the coronavirus.
The way we treat the most vulnerable at this critical point in time will not only reveal much about us as a state but will directly impact the safety of all of us as Louisianans and Americans.
Together, by heeding the advice of medical experts, we can protect the public from this deadly disease, while advancing justice and due process for all.