New Orleans Begins Third Year of AmeriCorps NLADA VISTA Program

You are here

Release Date: 
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Orleans Public Defender Office was one of our first host sites, first focusing on building better data systems. As they begin their third year with NLADA AmeriCorps VISTA members, they have built stronger community relations across New Orleans and use the data reports NLADA AmeriCorps members create to show how the partnerships assist their clients. Daniel Goldstein, a Community Partnerships member, explains below how Hurricane Katrina pushed the city to make important changes to follow best practices for holistic public defense.


The city of New Orleans has a notable history regarding criminal justice, both due to its intensity and due to the recent reforms. Similar to many things in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina was a turning point for both criminal justice more broadly as well as the Orleans Public Defenders as an organization. 


Before Hurricane Katrina, and in fact up until only a few years ago, New Orleans was the incarceration capital of the world based on per-capita rates of incarceration. At the time of the storm, there were nearly 7,000 people incarcerated in the parish (county) jail, now called Orleans Justice Center (OJC). Some were evacuated, while others were stranded with no food, water, or electricity for days. Massive lawsuits were brought against Sheriff Marlin Gusman, which sparked a broader community awareness of issues with the jail which has turned into reform. Notably, after Sheriff Gusman requested funds to rebuild a jail with 6,000 beds, community advocates successfully lobbied then-governor Mitch Landrieu to reconsider Gusman’s proposal and instead build a smaller jail. A win for the community, OJC was built with a capacity of just 1,438 beds. Before the arrival of the pandemic to New Orleans, the jail population was hovering around 1,100, and today it sits around 800. Due to this drastic shift, New Orleans has lost its nefarious title as the incarceration capital of the world. 


Part of the reason for this success is that both Orleans Parish (the government entity responsible for the jail) and the City of New Orleans (which operates the police department) are under consent decrees laid out by courts that mandate better practices from both entities. The City has also been granted funds from the MacArthur Foundation that encourage alternatives to incarceration and have been working, as seen by the declining jail population. Over the past 3 years, New Orleans has also implemented reforms that have eased the reentry process for individuals returning from prison or jail, including easing restrictions on public housing and expanding public employment opportunities for individuals with criminal records. 


As mentioned before, Hurricane Katrina was a turning point for the City, and it provided an opportunity for institutions that had been failing before the storm to be rebuilt from the ground up. The rejuvenated Orleans Parish Public Defenders office was founded on a “client-centered, community-oriented defense model that puts the client first” and understands how each individual’s situation and history plays into their case. In their official capacity, OPD has implemented a number of efforts to connect more broadly with the community. OPD spearheaded a program to help clear warrants related to homelessness as well as creating expungement workshops to help individuals clear their records. Also, the office created their Client Services Division (CSD), which expands the role of OPD beyond just the courts. CSD connects clients with community resources, which supports those clients and reduces recidivism. As I start my year of service, I am connecting to organizations to improve the options for our clients and the CSD team.