By Newell Normand | WWL Radio | October 1, 2019
One in seven adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest, according a recent article in the Washington Post. The response by some of the City Council members resembles a series of dots that don’t really connect. Newell invited Rafael Goyeneche from the Metropolitan Crime Commission into the studio to ferret out what’s behind the Council’s reaction to this alarming statistic.
“Kind of odd that the Washington Post ends up doing a story on a municipal court and their number of warrants,” Newell began. “Any idea what’s behind this story?”
“I agree with you, it’s odd,” Goyeneche said. “And it gets a little more suspicious when the article is published on Monday, and on Thursday there’s a committee hearing by the Council, and the group appearing has a PowerPoint. It seems like this wasn’t the reporter digging this out on their own, it seems like an orchestrated event. The title of the presentation was ‘NOLA Shakedown: How Criminalizing Municipal Fines and Fees Trapped Poor and Working Class Black New Orleanians in Poverty.’ Jason Williams has a quote attributed to him by WDSU was ‘poor residents committing victimless crimes out of desperation and poverty are too often trapped in a hopeless cycle of outstanding fines and fees resulting in warrants that ultimately drain our taxpayer resources.’ If Jason Williams believes that, and his fellow Councilmembers believe that… all of these ordinances and traffic violations were passed by the City Council. If the Council truly believes that, the solution isn’t to forgive all these, it’s to repeal all the laws the Council passed. If these laws are unfair and unjust, then repeal them!
The ‘forgiveness’ Goyeneche refers to there is a proposal from Councilmember Williams to wipe out nearly all of those outstanding arrest warrants, and waive the fines and fees that go along with them. Goyeneche pulled no punches about what is the motivating factor behind putting a proposal like that forward.
“This is more of a political stunt than a meaningful reform,” he continued. “I think this entire scenario was staged for media play, and I think that’s a really sad state of affairs for the City Council and the people of this city.”
Newell was even less forgiving of this misguided idea.
“These soundbite politicians are despicable. They’re pathetic!” Newell said. “What this really is is a means test; they’re not gonna do away with the underlying ordinance. This is a way of extracting more money from people that can actually reasonably afford to pay these fines. They don’t want to do away with that. They want to do away with the accountability measures depending on someone’s means. Unless they’re saying that there’s discriminatory enforcement – like saying the only people getting parking tickets are poor – and then, to interject race into this issue is as despicable as it gets.”
“The fact that there’s 55,000 warrants dating back to 2002… you’re looking at 17 years worth of warrants,” Goyeneche said. “Those individuals haven’t been questioned, but the assumption by this Councilmember and some of the sponsors of this movement is that they’re all Black, they’re all poor, and they all have warrants because they came to court and said they couldn’t afford to pay. The reality is, if they haven’t appeared in court, a Judge has no recourse. They were summonsed by the police, not by the Judge, and charged by the City Attorney, who didn’t dismiss the case. So when someone doesn’t appear in court, the solution is for the Judge to issue an attachment for them. But police aren’t going out looking for misdemeanor attachments. So the fact that some of these are as old as 17 years old suggests that the police are using the discretion that a change in the law in 2011 granted them, giving them the discretion not to arrest outstanding non-violent misdemeanor and traffic violators. If they’re not being sought out by police, they’re not being brought back to jail unless they’ve committed another serious and current offense. This is less about trying to help people out and more about political grandstanding.”
“If we’re saying this is a problem,” Newell replied, “Why have parking rules? Why have traffic rules? Why have any of these rules if there’s gonna be a means test and you get amnesty if you’re poor? Since when do the poor, middle income and wealthy people not have to play by the same rules? The other thing that’s kind of disingenuous about this is, Williams said ‘this is not just a benevolent gift to those residents affected, but good financial sense. It costs about $2.7 million a year to staff a 40-person quad in the jail. This is about the same number of people incarcerated on a daily basis for municipal warrants and misdemeanors.’ But he represents some of the same groups that complain about for-profit jails. Which is it? He’s complaining they’re losing money in this proposition, so the converse would be that it’s okay if you’re making money, so now all these decisions are coming down to economics. If that’s the case, we oughta re-evaluate a lot of what we’re doing in City government!”