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Out of Balance: Lack of diversity taints Louisiana criminal justice system

When Rosalind Bobb’s son Jamon “Monty” Rogers was murdered in 2006, she had to find out details from the local newspaper – not from law enforcement.

“All they said, and I read it in the paper, was that it was drug-related,” Bobb said. “But they didn’t find any drugs anywhere. And I asked them, ‘Did you find any drugs?’ and they said, ‘No.’ Well, why are y’all saying that?

“Many times I went to ask them questions and they could not answer me,” Bobb said. “So I knew I had to do what I had to do to get justice for my murdered child.”

The assumptions made by law enforcement in New Iberia, Louisiana, and the lack of responsiveness to Bobb’s inquiries are nothing new. For decades, Black residents have voiced their outrage over the lack of attention to crime within and against their communities. They have also protested the abuse of young Black men in a criminal justice system that does not represent them fairly.

In a new report titled Out of Balance, the SPLC Action Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lobbying arm, looks at parish (county) criminal justice system leadership in Louisiana. The report finds a huge disparity between the state’s racial demographics and the ethnicity of its sheriffs and district attorneys – the officials at the forefront of criminal investigations and prosecutions.

“Although people of color are grossly overrepresented at every point of the criminal justice system in Louisiana, white individuals hold the power to influence Black citizens’ interactions with racial profiling, criminalization, and incarceration,” the report states.

The numbers are startling.

Of the 64 sheriffs across the state, only four (6%) are Black. Only 12% of the 42 district attorneys are Black. This is in a state where almost a third of the population is Black.

According to state-level sentencing data compiled by the nonprofit Sentencing Project, 581 of every 100,000 people in Louisiana are incarcerated. That is the second-highest rate of incarceration in the U.S. Louisiana only recently dropped slightly behind Mississippi, where the incarceration rate is 584 per 100,000.

As in other states across the Deep South, the system is in many ways a legacy of 150 years of slavery and nearly a century of Black Codes and Jim Crow segregation, under which states enacted laws designed specifically to criminalize Black people.

The people being sentenced in Louisiana are 3.8 times as likely to be Black as white – even though 31.2% of the population is Black and 57.9% white. As of 2022, 65% of Louisiana’s prison population is Black.

“Clearly, the people with chief roles in Louisiana’s criminal justice system do not reflect the state’s demographic diversity, despite research that shows that diversity in these ranks increases public safety,” the SPLC Action Fund report says. “Out of Balance aims to expose the lack of diversity in Louisiana’s law enforcement – particularly its sheriffs and DAs – to begin to chart a path toward a system truly representative of the communities it serves, and a culture that produces different outcomes for people of color.”

Her own investigation

Bobb’s case is emblematic of the lack of attention to the needs of Black communities.

“Each time I went, they kind of gave me the runaround,” Bobb said. “And I told them, ‘My child’s dead.’ And I would leave my house at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning looking for that boy [the suspected killer]. My husband told me, ‘You can’t do that. He’ll kill you if he finds you.’ I just had to get him. He had to be caught.”

After months of conducting her own investigation, talking to people on the street and developing sources, Bobb got a break. While the suspected shooter had not been arrested, two women connected to the case had been jailed. A third woman, who was not in jail, told Bobb she had transferred a call she received from a woman in jail to Ricardo Irvin – a Katrina evacuee who had come to New Iberia after leaving Houston – who was implicated in her son’s death. 

“She picked up the phone and heard him [Irvin] say he was ‘laying low in the B.R.,’” Bobb recounted. “So I called a person in Baton Rouge in homicide and told them what I knew.”

Irvin was picked up that night. Without Bobb’s constant attention, he may have never been found. Three years later, he confessed to Rogers’ murder as well as the killing in Houston of the son of a New Orleans Police Department detective.

This kind of official neglect is not the worst part of the white-heavy power structure outlined in Out of Balance. Louisiana’s history of police abuses is long and well documented, and Black people are usually on the receiving end.

The report cites the example of the 2020 death of Raymond Bonnette Sr. in the Iberia Parish jail.

Bonnette, a father of four, was arrested for the low-level, nonviolent offense of owing back child support. Only a few days before his scheduled release, his family received a phone call informing them that Bonnette had taken his life in his jail cell. To this day, the family continues to question whether his death was truly a suicide, or a cover-up by a predominantly white sheriff’s department.

“Child support should not be a death sentence,” said Khadijah Rashad, Bonnette’s grandmother.

Power of incumbency

Despite research showing that communities benefit from diverse law enforcement, Louisiana’s sheriffs and district attorneys in no way reflect the state’s demographic diversity. To be sure, the Louisiana numbers mirror national data, as 90% of sheriffs across the country are white men, who comprise only 30% of the U.S. population.

Traditionally, incumbent Louisiana sheriffs win reelection no matter what occurs during their terms. For example:

  • Craig Webre, who is white, has remained as the Lafourche Parish sheriff since his election in 1991. He presides over a predominantly white (76%) parish where three on-duty officers repeatedly abused a Black man with cerebral palsy during a 2020 arrest.
  • Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, a white man in a majority-Black parish, maintains his 20-year incumbency despite controversial slavery-evoking remarks in which he said that instead of decarceration reform, he would rather extend jail time for the “good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that where we save money.”
  • East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III, who is white, has won every reelection since 2007 in a parish that is nearly half-Black (47%) even after a Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis was fatally shot 21 times by East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies.

The report also indicates that more diversity among the state’s district attorneys could create a fairer application of justice. Statewide, 81% of Louisiana’s wrongful convictions since 1989 have been of Black people.

Bright spots on the horizon

A series of judicial reforms put in place in 2017 marked a first step toward diminishing Louisiana’s place as an incarceration leader. The reforms primarily focused on those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual crimes, to steer less serious offenders away from prison and strengthen alternatives to imprisonment. The state projected that, over a decade, the measures will reduce the prison population by 10% and the community supervision population by 12%.

In 2020, Orleans Parish voters elected former prosecutor Jason Williams as the new district attorney — the second Black man to hold the office following Eddie Jordan, who served from 2003 to 2007. As of November 2022, Williams’ office has obtained early release for at least 168 people through resentencing.

The state has also seen a shift in voting patterns. In 2020, the same year Williams won his seat, 17 incumbent sheriffs statewide lost their bids for reelection. In 2021, voters in Orleans Parish replaced 17-year incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who is also Black, with Susan Hutson, who became the state’s first Black woman sheriff.

Change takes time and persistence, though. For her part, Robb said her advice to those trying to work for justice within the system today is the same today as it was in 2006: Always ask questions.

“I’d tell them to stay on ’em,” she said. “Get with your detectives. Find out where the case is. Write down your questions before you even go. Let them know that justice has to be served.”

Picture at top: Khadijah Rashad, 63, a native of Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish, has spent decades as an activist on a variety of issues. Rashad’s grandson, Raymond Bonnette Sr., died in 2020 in Iberia Parish jail on charges of owing back child support. (Credit: Daymon Gardner)