Churches and faith-based groups need to organize collectively to pressure public officials to use data-based initiatives that have been proven to reduce high rates of murder and violent crime in several U.S. cities, a New Orleans pastor told the PICO National Gathering of Clergy Nov. 15.
The conference ended with an anti-violence town hall meeting called “Lifelines to Healing,” which attracted more than 500 clergy and religious leaders from across the U.S. and 2,000 laypersons.
Rev. Antoine Barriere of Household of Faith Family Worship Church in the Lower 9th Ward said high rates of violent crime are tied to low-quality public education, “mass incarceration” of African Americans and Latinos, and ex-offenders’ limited access to decent jobs after they leave prison.
“We’re going to stand up against our kids being jailed, our kids losing out, our kids in failing schools and our kids being shot like animals,” Rev. Barriere said.
Largest faith-based network
The gathering of the PICO National Network, the largest faith-based organizing network in the U.S., attracted representatives of 25 different faiths, including 70 Catholic priests.
“We need children to be our priority, and we need to educate them,” said Edmundite Father Michael Jacques, pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans.
Through the Micah Project, which is local arm of PICO in New Orleans, Father Jacques and his parishioners have been meeting with the Recovery School District (RSD) in Orleans Parish to find a suitable charter school operator that would assume control of the Phillis Wheatley School, which is being rebuilt after being destroyed by Katrina.
Pressed for better schools
Father Jacques said the four potential charter school operators suggested by the RSD were not good enough, and he pressed RSD superintendent John White for better options.
“We don’t want just any old school,” Father Jacques said. “We want a school of excellence, and until we get a school of excellence, we’re going to drive you nuts.”
Speaker after speaker produced research on education and violent crime that members of the Micah Project had compiled for the Lifelines to Healing campaign. Following a version of the “Ceasefire Initiative” that has been tried in major U.S. cities such as Boston and Chicago, clergy leaders have conducted regular “prayer walks” through the Lower 9th Ward to ask residents about their interactions with the criminal justice system.
End ‘mass incarceration’
Paula Arceneaux, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in New Orleans, said the campaign has three major steps: stopping the violence; eliminating mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos and helping ex-offenders “get back on their feet”; and creating “real opportunity through jobs and education.”
She said in 10 of 11 cities where the “Ceasefire Initiative” has been implemented, the level of violence has been reduced.
“If a cancer treatment works 10 out of 11 times, we would want that cancer patient to receive it,” she said.
Arceneaux said cities have a financial incentive to keep prisons full because they usually are paid by the state for each prisoner they lock up on a “per diem” basis.
“The sheriff’s office gets paid like a hotel,” Arceneaux said. “It creates a financial incentive to have more people jailed. Our local jail is four times bigger than it needs to be.”
Low reading scores, more jails
She said many jurisdictions determine jail size based on fourth-grade reading scores in their public schools.
“If our kids are not reading well by the fourth grade, someone else is planning for them to go to prison,” Arceneaux said. “Is that what we want?”
The current Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) holds 3,200 inmates, and Arceneaux said cities of similar sizes have prisons with 830 beds. However, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said before Hurricane Katrina, OPP had 7,500 inmates. Pressed by the Micah Project to cap the size of the new jail at 1,438 beds, Landrieu said the current jail population already has been cut in half, and he needs more information before committing to a number.
“You may not even need 1,438, but we can’t make that decision today,” Landrieu said. “We are arresting too many people we shouldn’t arrest, and we are not arresting who we should.”
200,000 murders since 9/11
Teny Gross, director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Non-Violence in Providence, R. I., said 200,000 people have been murdered in the U.S. since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I come from Israel, and I’m amazed that it’s safer for me to come back from Lebanon in a uniform – I have a better chance of survival – than it is for a black man from 17 to 31 years old in Washington, D.C.,” Gross said. “When you have a war going on, you first have to stop the war. But we don’t do it here. The best thing I can think of that’s making a difference is PICO and the faith-based movement. We need to stop the killing.”
“In city after city, when we apply a partnership and work in a certain way with police and identify the shooters, use the churches, engage young people with love and consequences and opportunities, we never, never fail,” Gross added. “But we’ve been missing the faith-based movement in an organized way.”
Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said the obstacles facing ex-inmates make it difficult for them to stay out of prison.
She said ex-inmates often are denied the right to vote or serve on a jury, and they can’t find work when they acknowledge they have been in prison.
“The question on the application is, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’” Alexander said. “It doesn’t matter if it was three weeks ago or 45 years ago, you have to check that box, knowing full well that the application is going straight into the trash can.”
Ex-offenders need attention
Some states do not allow ex-prisoners to live in publicly financed housing when they get out of jail, she said.
“Your family faces eviction by allowing you just to come home,” Alexander said. “Some are deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of their lives once they’re caught with drugs. Some states make you pay back the cost of your imprisonment, and if you’re one of the lucky few who actually manages to get a job, up to 100 percent of your wages can be garnished to pay back your court fines and court costs.
“What do you expect folks to do? They go right back to prison. Seventy percent return within three years, and the majority who return do so in a matter of months because the challenges associated with survival are so immense. The worst is the shame and stigma that will follow you for the rest of your life.”
The PICO leaders got a commitment from assistant U.S. Attorney General Laurie Robinson to meet with them about violence prevention.
“Some people will say, ‘I’ve heard all this before, and when we leave here it’ll all be forgotten,’” Rev. Barriere said. “We’re not going to forget. There’s a 2012 election, and we can do something about it. We won’t forget because it’s our kids.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.