Many states have made moves to end the fruitless cycle of arrest and incarceration by moving nonviolent defendants out of prosecution and into more productive intervention programs. One New Orleans judge has seen just how effective this approach can be.
Petite, with thick-framed glasses and short, stylish hair, Judge Desiree Charbonnet has an upbeat, officious manner appropriate for someone who presides over a courtroom. During her eight years on the bench, she has cultivated efficiency to deal with the thousands of cases that land in her court. But recently, the judge has had more empathy toward those who appear before her. She has taken the time to learn more about certain types of repeat defendants, including those charged with prostitution or who have mental illness and substance issues, to better understand not how to sentence them, but what approaches might keep them out of the criminal-justice system—rather than on an endless cycle in and out of jail.
This shift is in part about recognizing the humanity in people who appear in her court, but also about getting better results. When it comes to nonviolent misdemeanors, high incarceration rates “have really not done anything for public safety,” Charbonnet says. Jail time does not effectively deter certain crimes rooted in social issues like addiction, poverty, or mental illness, according to a 2007 study by the Vera Institute of Justice. Charbonnet has been a front-row witness to the cycles of arrest, missed court dates, unpaid fines and fees, and incarceration that lead many to appear before her time after time.