New Orleans faith leaders gathered Wednesday night at the Household of Faith Family Worship Church International in East New Orleans to honor the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — and called for an end to “the mass incarceration crisis” that has bedeviled Louisiana for decades.
Daniel Schwartz, of the interfaith Micah Project, said incarceration rates in the state are the highest in the world. “That is a blot on Rev. Dr. King’s dream,” he said.
The mid-week ministering session featured, among other speakers, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond, local Jewish leaders, and several New Orleans schoolchildren.
More than 1,000 people representing religious institutions from across the region were in attendance, said speaker and church Deacon Desiree Calvin. The packed house included state Rep. Austin Badon and New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry.
The campaign, “Justice for All, Not Just for Some,” is pushing a multi-pronged citizen-engagement campaign in New Orleans and at the state level.
The campaign is demanding that city leaders pledge to cap the bed count at a new jail facility in New Orleans to a City Council-approved 1,438 beds.
Schwartz said the campaign would push city leaders to fully fund a pretrial-services program run at the jail by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“Too many of our people are being incarcerated when there are other options,” said Deacon Lawrence Houston from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.
Houston noted that the church’s interest in the prison-reform campaign was reflected in Pope Francis’ commitment to social justice for the least among his Christian flock.
“Christ loved people for who they were, whether they were a thief or a prostitute,” Houston said. “We need to set expectations and have high standards, but we also have to meet people where they are.”
Leaders also called for an end to the budgeting scheme that funds the sprawling Orleans Parish jail complex. The jail is largely funded through per-diem payments, in which the city pays the sheriff $22.39 per inmate each day. Critics say the deal creates an incentive to incarcerate.
Schwartz said the community action would emphasize voter education in advance of an October vote for criminal court magistrate judge, and citywide elections in 2014.
The campaign also called for a state-level initiative to enact sentencing reform legislation in 2014, Schwartz said, to undo harsh sentencing laws now on the books.
Speakers highlighted a troubling statistic at the heart of the penal-reform push: One out of seven black males from New Orleans are either in jail, on parole or on probation.