Gulf Coast: Criminal Justice and Human Rights
Written by Sala W.J. Nolan Gonzales
Shortly after the levees breached in 2006, I joined the Minister of Communication in a first foray into the Gulf Cost region. We drove a rental van loaded with emergency supplies and clothing. Fortunately, the van was equipped with GPS, which became essential because there were no road signs standing. We could only navigate by satellite positioning. In the five years since, I have returned to the region several times each year, most recently in the spring of 2009. The Gulf Coast looks much the same in far too many areas. People are still living in trailers. Tarps are still on roofs. People are still searching for money to rebuild and return. In our last trip, we spoke with many children and parents who are living in fear of the next hurricane. Caregivers and other professionals were holding their own as they worked in the region, but today, signs of shellshock and trauma are growing among providers as they continue to navigate a landscape without clarity and order.
The challenges to stability in the Gulf Coast continue, and now the community is clamoring for help in dealing with a wave of crime and gang activity. In contrast to national decreases in violent crime in the past few years, violence has soared in the region. In New Orleans, murders rose from 162 in 2006 to 209 in 2007; rapes increased from 87 to 115; and aggravated assault increased from 1,245 to 1,973, according to the FBI. The early focus on immediate needs for housing and basic services is shifting toward a need for safety in the wake of this growing violence. It has become clear that incarceration is not a solution. In fact, over incarceration remains an enormous problem. One emerging issue is that services for the mentally ill are generally unavailable, leaving people with mental illness to fend for themselves. They are regularly removed from the streets and taken to jails, where many do not receive medication for several days, and some do not receive medication at all. The most seriously mentally ill suffer tremendously as a result, and it takes considerable time and professional effort to stabilize their conditions. The jails are ill equipped to deal with their problems, which worsen with incarceration. Together with the Minister for Health, I am developing a plan to work with criminal justice system workers and the community to educate judges on the plight of the mentally ill, and to develop alternatives to prison for people who need mental health services.
Refuge is still necessary. We continue to work extensively with churches and community groups in the region to maintain a presence on the Gulf Coast. Presence makes it possible for us to be called upon efficiently and effectively, especially for things that require a quick response, and it keeps us aware of what is needed now and what the next steps are likely to be. Much of this work has been one-to-one, but some of it has focused on bringing together faith groups and providers, as with A Day of Presence in 2007. We continue to collaborate with Critical Resistance, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and others to address justice issues in the area on a case-by-case basis.
In the years since the hurricanes, widespread human rights violations in the region have become visible. They have to do with inequitable distribution of services and support and on the disenfranchisement of internally displaced persons. We have developed solid, continuous partnerships with local groups, and work constantly to identify and publicize human rights violations in the region. Some of this is through petitioning for an international tribunal on human rights. Some is through general education. We have supported efforts by educating our larger faith community through the Justice & Peace Action Network (JPANet) Action Alerts, by preparing pastoral letters and documents for the church, and for Governor Blanco and other governmental leaders in the region, through histories and updates to the UCC's Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice (MRSEJ), and through various UCC communication outlets. Because we are headquartered in Cleveland, we organized a local forum on justice the Gulf Coast in 2007, which was attended by more than 500 people from this community; we supported similar initiatives in cities across the country.
We have trained mediators in the Gulf Coast region to work with police, courts and community leaders to protect citizen rights and address justice concerns. We have also partnered with a number of local and national groups that focus on legal issues to address immediate and long-term consequences of cases that have reached national attention, such as the Jena 6.
A hot summer is upon us, and the money for summer programs for youth has not yet solidified, so schedules are not available and people are uncertain. Programming support is needed.
Five years in, and the communities of the Gulf Coast still struggle with problems of housing, schools, basic health care, and poverty. The crime wave that besets the region is not surprising. It cannot be ignored. We continue to work for justice, for fundamental care for our people, and for safety. It is a day-by-day, case-by-case, step-by-step process. We maintain our partnerships in the region and throughout the country, and continue to do the work.
Updates on the situation in the Gulf Coast.
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