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By Nicholas Chrastil
The Lens

An ambitious plan to end the so-called “user-pay” justice system in New Orleans was released by the Vera Institute of Justice on Wednesday. The report, “Paid in Full: A Plan to End Money Injustice in New Orleans,” lays out recommendations for the city that would end the use of money bail, eliminate fees charged to defendants when they are convicted, and increase city funding for the criminal justice system in New Orleans — while reducing the jail population by as much as 56 percent.

The report argues that money bail and conviction fees are unjust, disproportionately harm Black people, do not increase public safety and end up unnecessarily costing taxpayers.

“The extraction of wealth is a terrible suppression of economic and racial equity in this city,” Jon Wool, the Director of Justice Policy at Vera’s New Orleans office and one of the co-authors of the report, told The Lens.

According to the report, in 2017 New Orleans residents paid $6.8 million for bail fees and premiums and $1.9 million in conviction fees. The majority of those costs — 88 percent of bail premiums and 69 percent of conviction fees — were paid by Black families.

The current system of money bail also fails to keep the city safe, the report argues.

“In New Orleans, 65 percent of people arrested for the most serious crimes or who are flagged as high risk for other reasons avoid jail by paying bail,” the report says. Meanwhile, it claims, many are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to bond out.

“We are using government’s most oppressive tool — incarceration — in circumstances where it’s wholly unwarranted,” Wool said. “And it singles out poor people and Black people, all in the name of raising revenues for government agencies and politically powerful for-profit industry.”

“That’s morally wrong. Bad policy, and morally wrong.”

Aside from whether or not they are just, there are financial obstacles that would come along with eliminating bail and conviction fees in New Orleans: the court currently relies on them for 25 percent of its operating budget, according to the report, and the offices of the public defender and the district attorney rely on them as well, to a lesser extent. In 2017, the court took in nearly $2 million in bail and conviction fees, while the district attorney’s office and the public defenders office took in around $500,000 and $400,000, respectively.

In order to replace that lost revenue, the Vera report suggests increasing city funding to criminal justice agencies by $2.8 million annually, split between the court the D.A.s office, and the public defenders. Those funds, they argue, would come from money saved by having fewer people in jail and a proportional reduction in the budget for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office — most of which is paid by the city.

“Importantly,” the report says, “this does not represent a new cost to the city and its taxpayers because the city stands to save far more by no longer incarcerating people simply because they cannot pay bail.”

Vera estimates that the city would save between $3.7 million and $8.3 million annually by lowering the jail population. A spokesman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell declined to comment for this story.

The report comes amid a broader push by city officials to reduce the number of people locked up. Since 2015, the jail population has been reduced by more than 25 percent, and earlier this year the city was awarded a $2 million grant by the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge to reduce it by another 20 percent.

It also comes in the wake of two federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of bail practices and conviction fees in New Orleans. Rulings by federal judges in each case have found that setting money bail and the charging conviction fees by New Orleans judges both constitute conflicts of interest. They also found that judges in New Orleans have failed to adequately take into account a defendant’s ability to pay when assessing bail amounts and conviction fees.

While those rulings theoretically ban current bail- and fee-setting practices in the Criminal District Court, they did not mandate a specific course of action for the city’s judges. The court is appealing the portions of the decisions that find conflicts of interest.

The Recommendations

Vera has worked with the court in the past to adjust its bail practices. In 2012, the organization was contracted by the city to administer a pretrial services program, which provided risk-assessments of defendants meant to be used by judges to help determine whether or not they could be safely released without posting bond, as well as supervision services that were intended to make sure defendants showed up for court.

But the program was controversial among judges. Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, for instance, barred Vera assessments from the court record.

Then, in 2017, the administration of the program was transferred from Vera to the court itself. In 2018, judges began using the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a data-driven risk assessment tool used by a number of states and jurisdictions around the country, along with a decision making-framework (DMF) that translates the PSA risk-score into a recommendation of whether or not a defendant should be released and what amount of supervision should be required of them.

Now, with the PSA and DMF infrastructure in place, the report argues, it is time for the judges to do away with money bail altogether.

Instead of setting a bail amount, the report recommends that judges should fully rely on the PSA and DMF to determine which defendants should be released and how much supervision — if any — should be required of them.

The only people who judges should even consider detaining, the report suggests, are those who are being charged with a violent crime that would result in a prison sentence if convicted, or those who are scored in the highest risk category. Everyone else would be released without having to pay any money.

“It would be inappropriate, for example, to consider detaining someone simply because he might miss a court date, or she might be re-arrested for a crime that doesn’t harm anyone,” the report says.

Using data from 2018, the report estimates that following their recommendations, judges would immediately release 73 percent of people arrested for a felony.

For certain types of crimes it is illegal under Louisiana state law for judges to release a defendant without setting a bail amount. In those instances in which a person would be released based on the risk assessment and decision making framework but can’t be legally released under state law without some money bail being set, Vera suggests setting a “nominal money bail amount of one dollar ‘or even ten cents’ to ensure their release without delay.”

For defendants who could warrant detention, the report recommends giving them a full evidentiary hearing within three days of their initial court appearance with a lawyer present and the ability to call witnesses.

“To actually detain someone,” the report says, “the judge must make a finding on the record, supported by clear and convincing evidence, that serious and imminent danger to a particular individual or the community exists that cannot be mitigated by applying conditions of release.”

Ending conviction fees would be more straight forward: the judges would just agree to stop charging them to defendants following a conviction. The report also encourages the judges to apply a “retroactive lens” by expunging all existing conviction fees and recalling any warrants related to unpaid fees.

‘A winning proposition?’

The plan, the report argues, “is a winning proposition for everyone but the for-profit bail bond industry.” In reality, however, there is likely to be significant political pushback against the idea, and getting the city and the judges to sign on could be a challenge.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, for one, has been highly critical of recent efforts to reduce the jail population, calling them a “social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naive politicians.”

The chief judge of Criminal District Court, Keva Landrum-Johnson, accused Cannizzaro of not being a “willing participant” in the pretrial services program and efforts to release non-violent offenders from custody.

The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Despite his rhetoric, Jon Wool at Vera thinks the DA might in fact be on board with the plan.

“I think the district attorney would agree that if we really care about individuals and community and safety, we have to take control of the detention decision,” Wool said. “The only way to do that is to not give people the keys to their jail cell— the ability to purchase their way out.”

Ultimately, however, ending bail and conviction fees will come down to an agreement between the judges and the city. If that were to happen, it would likely come amid city budget negotiations that will take place later on this year.

As for the New Orleans bail bondsmen who would be out of work if Vera’s plan came to fruition? Wool suggested they could transition to supervision, or other for-profit services.

“Labor markets are changing for all of us,” Wool said. “It’s natural that they change for the bail industry as well.”

Stephen Adams, president of the Association of Louisiana Bail Underwriters and owner of #1 Bail Bond in New Orleans, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The above article originally appeared in The Lens on its website (www.thelensnola.org). The Louisiana Weekly enjoys a partnership with The Lens.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Big banks have been pressured by stakeholders to do something about gun prevalence, private prisons and climate change, among other issues. Two major banks that decided to restrict gun business have upset Republican leaders in sportsman’s paradise. Because of their firearms policies, Louisiana last summer excluded Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup from financing for roadwork and an interchange for the new Louis Armstrong Airport terminal.

Two other banks were chosen instead, including wayward Wells Fargo, which was being federally probed. This year, the state’s bond commissioners lightened up on BAML, however, and tapped it to provide financing for other work.

Over a year ago, BAML and Citi implemented gun policies after the February 2018 high school shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland, Florida.

When Citi announced its U.S. Commercial Firearms Policy in late March 2018, the bank said it wanted to help keep guns out of the wrong hands. Citi requires new clients not to sell firearms to anyone who hasn’t passed a background check or is under 21 years old, and not to sell bump stocks or high-capacity magazines. This policy applies to small businesses, commercial and institutional clients, and credit card partners. But “it doesn’t impact the ability of consumers to use their Citi cards at merchants of their choice,” the company said.

For its part, Bank of America said it wouldn’t finance the manufacturing of military-style firearms for civilian use, effective April 2018, but it would honor any related prior commitments. The bank said some of its employees and clients had been affected directly or indirectly by recent mass shootings.

Last August 16, Louisiana’s State Bond Commission barred Citibank and BAML from participating in roadwork financing because of their gun policies. In a 7-6 vote, split between Republicans and Democrats, the commission opted not to grade bids from the two banks. In the end, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan were chosen to be the senior underwriters.

That was Louisiana’s first Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle or GARVEE deal. Under the $600 million borrowing plan, the state is selling federal construction bonds to investors and repaying the debt over 12 years with highway money from Washington. The funds will be used for the I-10 Loyola Drive interchange for the new air terminal in Kenner, widening the I-10 in Baton Rouge, building an I-20 exit to Barksdale Air Force Base, and replacing the Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel in Plaquemines Parish.

In their choice of Wells Fargo, commissioners picked a bank being probed by the feds for auto insurance fraud, overcharging small businesses on credit card transactions, unfairly billing mortgage customers, and slamming college students with high fees.

When asked, Republican Representative Blake Miguez from Erath, who served as a proxy for the House on the bond commission in August, last week said he didn’t think Louisiana taxpayers had lost out because of the exclusion of Citi and BAML last summer.

In a shift this year, the bond commission altered its stance. BAML was awarded financing in February, Bank of America spokesman Bill Halldin said last week. In late February, BAML was the winning bidder as the commission sought $360 million for Louisiana general obligation bonds for construction. In the state’s first GO bond sale in nearly 18 months, commission members didn’t publicly object to firearm policies when bids were assessed. These bonds are being sold to investors for cash upfront, with debt to be paid over 20 years at a 3.2 percent interest rate.

Among the factors upsetting the bond commission in last August’s GARVEE bidding was that months after Citi and Bank of America announced gun policies that spring, their written responses to a questionnaire from the commission contradicted their public statements, Miguez said.

Last August 14, Louisiana’s Attorney General Jeff Landry wrote State Treasurer John Schroder, saying: “The selection of underwriters for the state ‘s issuance of GARVEE bonds is entirely discretionary. Citi and BAML’s misleading and disingenuous responses alone justify excluding them from further consideration.” He said Citi and BAML shouldn’t profit as state contractors, while they exclude businesses from banking services and deny citizens rights protected by the state constitution.

This spring, Miguez introduced House Bill 413, which would make it discriminatory for a financial institution to refuse services to anyone because of their lawful engagement in firearms and ammunition commerce. “HB 413 passed the House and then was parked in the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Committee, to be taken up in a future session,” Miguez said last week. “The bill is intended to prohibit financial institutions from refusing services to a person or organization solely because they’re involved in lawful commerce in firearms or ammunition.”

HB 413 aims to protect the state’s gun and ammunition dealers, gunsmiths, gun ranges, instructors and trade association, Miguez said. It’s supported by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Louisiana Shooting Association, Firearm Professionals of Louisiana, the Home Defense Foundation of New Orleans and the Louisiana Family Forum. State Republican officials, including Treasurer Schroder, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Attorney General Landry, support the bill.

Meanwhile, on the anti-firearms side, a Washington, DC group, Guns Down America, this spring graded banks on their commitments to safety and relations with industry. The group examined financial and legal filings to see how much business banks had done with manufacturers, the National Rifle Association and Congressional recipients of NRA money. They gave Citigroup a B; Goldman Sachs a C; Bank of America a C; Chase Bank an F; and Wells Fargo an F.

Last week, Citigroup spokesman Mark Costiglio had no comment about whether Citi can participate in Louisiana’s bond financing now. And at the state’s treasury department, spokeswoman Ruth Wisher also had no comment about Citi.

As for the impact of Citi’s firearms policies, the bank’s CEO Mike Corbat at a shareholder meeting in April said that people brought in business in response, while others took business away, but neither side had materially affected the company’s bottom line.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Charles Maldonado
The Lens

Records provided by the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the city’s 911 call center, show that since the January merger of 911 and 311 — the city’s general non-emergency service and complaint line — some 911 callers are waiting longer for call-takers to pick up. And increasing numbers of emergency callers have been hanging up without speaking to a 911 operator.

In a phone interview, Communication District Executive Director Tyrell Morris acknowledged that the addition of tens of thousands of 311 calls — complaints about things like garbage service, broken streetlights and drainage — has had an effect on 911 call answering times.

“It’s an impact that we anticipated for and planned for,” Morris said.

He added that the agency will soon add new staff from an academy class, with another class set to begin in the next several months. And he said city’s 911 call-takers are still meeting or exceeding national 911 service standards

The city and the Communication District merged 911 and 311 in January, training all emergency call-takers to handle 311 calls as well. The move, proposed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell as part of her 2019 budget, allowed the 311 phone service — formerly open during City Hall business hours — to operate 24 hours a day. Consolidating the services also meant that the city wouldn’t have to pay for a separate 311 call center, a $900,000 annual savings, Cantrell said.

But late last month, the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion questioning the legality of the arrangement. Because the Communication District was created primarily to administer an emergency number and assist the police department, fire department and city EMS, “it is likely improper for a communications district to administer a number for residents to call regarding local governmental information,” the opinion said.

Cantrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The use of the 911 call center for large numbers of non-emergency calls has come under scrutiny in the past. In 2013, The Lens reported that up to 12 percent of calls coming into the center were from police officers doing required check-ins during off-duty details.

“It’s disturbing that 911 is being used for anything else than 911,” then-City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said the following year in reference to the paid-detail call traffic.

Previously, in 2012, a consulting firm hired by the Communication District recommended that the call center “work toward removing non-emergency duties from communication staff, such as paid detail calls.”

“The impact on the overall workload of the center is significant,” a report by the firm said. “The handling of these calls detracts from the primary purpose of the [public safety answering point] of processing emergency calls.”

Heavy 311 call traffic

A report posted on the Communication District’s website says that “paid detail call-in via phone” was eliminated in November 2017. Marcus Creel, the Communication District’s public engagement officer, told The Lens that the agency’s operators no longer handle paid detail calls.

But monthly reports on call traffic, provided by the Communication District in response to a public records request, show that the center is receiving far more 311 calls per month than it previously got from police officers working details. The Lens reported that paid detail check-ins accounted for about 8,000 calls per month in late 2012 and early 2013.

Communication District employees have taken between 15,000 and 20,000 311 calls every month since January, about a quarter of the total calls included in the reports the agency provided. At the same time, 911 performance has declined.

Last month, 2,875 calls rang for 15 seconds or more, 5.5 percent of 51,998 calls.

While Morris said that 311 traffic has had an effect on 911 answering times, “We did not believe it was going to drop us below the national standards. And it has not.”

Over the past several years, the agency’s most commonly cited goal has been to meet an industry standard of answering 95 percent of emergency calls in 15 seconds or less. The Communication District does not include hang-ups, or abandoned calls, as part of this measurement. The reports provided show that it has met, and in most cases exceeded, that goal every month since May 2018 except for April and May, when it was very close, at 94.6 percent and 94.5 percent, respectively.

A separate standard it uses calls for 90 percent of emergency calls in 10 seconds or less. The Communication District has exceeded that goal in every month since December. (Data on call answering times of 10 seconds or under is not included for the earlier months.)

Meanwhile, the number of hang-ups, or abandoned calls, has gone up, from just under five percent of emergency traffic in May last year, to 6.2 percent in April and 5.9 percent in May.

Morris noted that the vast majority of those abandoned calls — before and after the merger — rang for two seconds or less before a hang-up or disconnection. Many were likely accidental calls.

However, the abandonment rate for calls that rang for at least 15 seconds has increased as well. In May 2018, 306 calls, or 0.5 percent of emergency calls, rang for 15 seconds of more before they were abandoned. Last month, that was up to 847, or 1.5 percent of all emergency calls.

In spite of the recent drop in performance, the call center still appears to be performing better than it was just a few years ago. The agency was its mark about 80 percent of the time in the spring of 2016. It used a slightly different standard and deducted abandoned calls from its success rate at the time. Even so, the abandonment rate was higher at the time, often accounting for more than 10 percent of emergency call traffic.

Morris said the Communication District will deal with the changes in part with additional staff. An academy class of 10 recruits is set to move from the classroom to its three-month on-the-job training on June 14. And another class will begin while they’re still in training.

He expects to be at full staffing levels — the agency is budgeted for 148 operations positions in its operations division — when those two classes have completed training.

In the meantime, he’s made up for vacancies in the call center with overtime for existing staff.

“But of course that’s not as good as having someone in that seat,” Morris said.

The above article originally appeared in The Lens on its website (www.thelensnola.org). The Louisiana Weekly enjoys a partnership with The Lens.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Stacy M. Brown
Contributing Writer

(NNPA Newswire) — Nearly 40 percent of the world’s girls and women live in countries that are failing on gender equality, according to information compiled by Equal Measures 2030 and its partners.

According to the website for the project, “The 2019 SDG Gender Index measures the state of gender equality aligned to 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 129 countries and 51 issues ranging from health, gender-based violence, climate change, decent work and others. The 2019 SDG Gender Index provides a snapshot of where the world stands, right now, linked to the vision of gender equality set forth by the 2030 Agenda.”

The index reveals that 1.4 billion girls and women are living in countries that get a “very poor” or failing grade on gender equality.

The SDG Gender Index is considered the most comprehensive tool available to measure the state of gender equality when compared to defined SDGs.

The average score across the 129 countries – which represent 95 percent of the world’s girls and women – is 65.7 out of 100, which translates to a “poor” rating based upon the index’s scoring system).

No single country is the world’s best performer – or even among the world’s top ten performers – across all goals or all issues.

In 2015, world leaders from the participating countries committed to achieve gender equality by 2030 for every girl and every woman when they signed on to the ambitious goals and targets of the SDGs.

“With just 11 years to go, our index finds that not a single one of the 129 countries is fully transforming their laws, policies or public budget decisions on the scale needed to reach gender equality by 2030,” Alison Holder, the director of Equal Measures 2030 said in a news release.

“We are failing to deliver on the promises of gender equality for literally billions of girls and women,” Holder said.

Overall, the world is furthest behind on gender equality issues related to public finance and better gender data (SDG 17), climate change (SDG 13), gender equality in industry and innovation (SDG 9) and – worryingly – the standalone ‘gender equality’ goal (SDG 5).

Denmark tops the index, followed closely by Finland, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands.

The countries with the lowest scores in the index – Niger, Yemen, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad – have all faced conflict and fragility in recent years.

Altogether, 2.8 billion girls and women live in countries that get either a “very poor” (59 and below) or “poor” score (60 – 69) on gender equality.

Just eight percent of the world’s population of girls and women live in countries that received a “good” gender equality score (80 – 89) and no country achieved an “excellent” overall score of 90 or above.

The 129 countries featured in the index cover five regions – Asia and the Pacific, Europe and North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s clear that even the most gender-equal countries need to improve on issues like climate change, gender budgeting and public services, equal representation in powerful positions, gender pay gaps, and gender-based violence,” Holder said.

The index also shows that countries with far fewer resources are still able to tackle key gender inequalities.

Senegal, for example, has a higher percentage of women in parliament (42 percent) than Denmark (37 percent), despite Denmark’s GDP per capita being 56 times higher than that of Senegal.

Kenya has very high rates of women who use digital banking (75 percent) – higher rates than three quarters of the world’s countries.

Colombia has better coverage of social assistance (81 percent) amongst its poorest people than the United States (65 percent), a higher-income country.

“This report should serve as a wakeup call to the world. We won’t meet the SDGs with 40 percent of girls and women living in countries that are failing on gender equality,” said Melinda Gates, Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“But the SDG Gender Index also shows that progress is possible. Many countries with the most limited resources are making huge strides in removing the barriers for girls and women across economies, politics and society – demonstrating that when it comes to gender equality, governments shouldn’t have excuses for inaction,” Gates said.

Officials said it’s also imperative that the global community provides investment and support to fragile and conflict-affected countries – those with the lowest scores in the Index, such as Yemen, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

“As advocates for gender equality in Africa, we can no longer operate on presumptions and approximations,” said Memory Kachambwa, the executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network – or FEMNET.

“Gaps of inequalities must be marked, counted and recorded so that the trail of implementation is clear and decision makers are held to account. The SDG Gender Index will help to ensure that Africa’s girls and women are counted and accounted for,” Kachambwa said.

While some issues are lagging far behind, dedicated international efforts appear to have made a difference on other issues.

Overall, countries have performed best on issues where coordinated and concerted policy focus and funding has been directed over the past 10-20 years, including on hunger and nutrition (SDG 2), water and sanitation (SDG 6), health (SDG 3) and education (SDG 4).

“With 8,000 decision-makers, advocates, and influencers gathered in Vancouver as part of the Women Deliver Conference, and over 100,000 participating around the world, we have the collective power to drive real progress on these gender equality scores and create real impact for girls and women,” said Katja Iversen, the president and CEO of Women Deliver.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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(Defender News Service) — Billionaire investor Robert F. Smith is showing the world his generosity is limitless.

Just weeks after vowing to eliminate the student loan debt of Morehouse College‘s 2019 graduating class, the private equity fund CEO is now working to help 1,000 young scholars land paid internships.

Smith has launched internX, a sector of his Fund II Foundation, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported. The new program is intended to help “rising sophomores with at least a 2.8 GPA from ethnically underrepresented groups” score an eight-week summer internship in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Smith shocked the crowd at commencement ceremonies in May when he announced that his family was providing a grant to wipe out the student debt for the entire graduating class at Morehouse College.

Opportunities in finance, marketing, software, not-for-profits and real estate are also available, according to the website.

So far, AT&T, Pricewater-houseCoopers, Deloitte, and Smith’s very own Vista Equity Partners are among the companies that have signed up to accept internX students. Founding partners will provide assistance for travel and housing on a case-by-case basis, the FAQs state.

“We will decide on whether to provide relocation assistance when we get data on company intentions,” it added.

In May, Smith shocked Morehouse graduates and their families when he promised to pay off the student loan debt for the entire graduating class — a donation estimated at $40 million.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith told the crowd before making the surprise announcement.

“This is my class, 2019,” he added. “And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

The tech investor, whose private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, is valued at nearly $5 billion, continued his legacy of service earlier this year when he pledged a $1.5 million gift to fund scholarships at the historically Black college, as well as a park that will serve as a new outdoor study area for local students.

Recent Morehouse grads Peter Wilborn and Ellis Walton, have promised to pay it forward and thanked Smith for giving them a leg up.

“We don’t just want to thank you for giving us a head start, but we also accept your challenge,” Wilborn said. “We plan to do so much more with what you’ve given us — so much more than we could possibly conceive of right now. Thank you so much.”

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Lafayette, Louisiana native, Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal gained recognition as being a hugely talented “zydeco guitarist” while performing with the legends of the genre, accordionists Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin’ Dopsie. In his early career and later when he led his own bands, Sinegal was known for his always tasty blues chops. Lil’ Buck Sinegal, who was once quoted as saying, “Zydeco is the blues,” died on Monday, June 10, 2019 at the age of 75.

PAUL SINEGAL

“He was the first zydeco guitarist I ever heard,” says C.J. Chenier, whose experience with Sinegal dates back to 1978 when C.J. began playing saxophone with his father’s group, Clifton Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band. “He was one of the pioneers of the zydeco guitar sound. He was also a great blues guy because my daddy played a lot of blues and he needed someone like Buck with him because it all went together. He was an all around natural.”

Sinegal began playing with the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier in 1969 and continued to hold down the guitar position in the Red Hot Band for 14 years. “He was a great accompanist because he knew exactly what to play and when to play it,” C.J. said. “He stayed in the pocket until he was called on to do what he had to do.”

In the 1950s, prior to his tenure with Chenier, Sinegal performed with an array of artists, including vocalists Lee Dorsey, Joe Tex and Carol Fran. He went on to become a session man for the Excello label recording with notables like Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester. It’s been written that Lil’ Buck’s guitar was heard on some 300 recordings including those from his zydeco years with Chenier, Buckwheat and Rockin’ Dopsie. In 1986, he was with Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters on Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning release, Graceland.

In 1999, Sinegal stepped up to put out an album as leader, The Buck Stops Here with music written with and produced by Allen Toussaint. His exciting sophomore release, Bad Situation, hit the shelves in 2013 and furthered Buck’s reputation as a songwriter.

“He developed himself as a lead man after he stopped playing with the zydeco musicians,” C.J. offers, adding that Buck very rarely sang unless he was doing his own shows. “He would get in front of that mic and do his thing – singing and playing like all get out.”

This Jazz Fest, Sinegal, who had performed at the festival annually since 1970, showed both sides of musical persona, performing with C.J. on the Fais Do-Do stage in a tribute to Clifton and the next weekend headlining in the Blues Tent teamed with Ironing Board Sam.

“He was a real mellow fellow, he liked to joke around and clown a lot,” says C.J. who was Buck’s roommate when Clifton was on the road. “He would laugh all the time about everything. Yeah, he was really a gentle person until you crossed him the wrong way and then he would really let you have it,” C.J. adds laughing at the memory. “He taught me a lot – how to live on the road, how to maintain myself and not get in trouble.”

He was the go-to guy – always good.”

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Lauren Victoria Burke
Contributing Writer

(NNPA Newswire) — “This shouldn’t be our truth but sadly it is,” wrote Jotaka Eaddy, a friend of Will Jawando, a member of the Montgomery City Council in Maryland.

The new Councilman was stopped by police in Maryland on the morning of June 8, a Saturday, as he drove to meet friends for a workout.

“Normally, Saturday mornings are my time for therapy, an early morning basketball run with my friends. So, I am always in my workout clothes & ready to work up a sweat and reminiscence about my glory days. Well this morning things went quite differently. 6:30 a.m., 2 blocks from the McDonald’s in White Oak where four young men were stopped, frisked and received trespass orders after being called the “n word,” I was pulled over for the umpteenth time in my life, this time by the MD State Police,” wrote Councilman Jawando on his Facebook page on June 9.

He then included a rundown of the conversation between himself and the police officer:

Officer: I stopped you because you stopped on the stop line at the last light. (I was stopped right next to another car at the light side by side).

First question: Is this your car? (because of course a black Lexus couldn’t be mine).

Me: Yes

Second question: Do you have any outstanding warrants or points?

Me: No

Officer: I need to see your license and registration.

Me: May I reach into my pocket to retrieve my license and registration?

Officer: Yes, slowly.

Me: While passing them to him I say, I’m a Montgomery County Councilmember.

Officer: What did you say?

Me: I’m on the Montgomery County Council

Officer: Oh. (Surprised)

Jawando’s encounter with the police was an example of an arbitrary police stop that has little connection to probable cause and often leads to a fourth amendment violation of search and seizure.

In 2011, New York Police officers made nearly 700,000 stops as part of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s aggressive stop-and-frisk campaign that was focused on Black and Hispanic men. Six years later in 2017, under current-Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD reported 11,629 stops, a 98 percent decrease from 2011. Contrary to what was theorized, the crime rates in New York went down without the massive use of stop-and-frisk. In 2007, the New York ACLU sued to get access to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk database, which they then used to sue the city for discrimination.

Though young Black and Latino males between 14 and 24 accounted for only 4.7 percent of the population of the city of New York, they accounted for 41.6 percent of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young Black men exceeded the entire city population of young Black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety percent of those stopped were innocent.

“As I try to relax from the encounter, I realize this was a classic “pretextual stop,” when an officer stops a driver for a minor traffic violation to allow them to then investigate a separate and unrelated, suspected criminal offense. These stops are used disproportionately against African Americans and people of color and are ripe for racial profiling. Fortunately, I resorted to my “training” honed over years of similar stops,” Councilman Jawando wrote on Facebook.

“But I couldn’t stop thinking about what happens to the young man or women who’s not a lawyer or a county councilmember, hasn’t honed their training on how to survive a stop, has an outstanding traffic ticket or bench warrant they don’t know about and how this situation could have escalated. Aside from the fact that the 4th Amendment barring illegal search and seizure should mean something, these tactics erode public trust in law enforcement and must stop,” Jawando concluded.

Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent journalist and writer for NNPA as well as a political analyst and strategist as Principal of Win Digital Media LLC. She may be contacted at LBurke007@gmail.com and on twitter at @LVBurke.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

“I like to have fun on the bandstand – it creates a good vibe,” declares drummer and vocalist Gerald French who does just that every time he sits behind his set. Thoughts turned to French following two recent shows, Donna’s Revisited at Snug Harbor and his Jazz Fest performance leading the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. In 2011, he took over leadership of the historic ensemble from his uncle, the late drummer Bob French, who succeeded the band’s leader, banjoist Albert “Papa” French. On both occasions, Gerald just drove the traditional jazz groups with his steady yet intricate stick work and big personality. He was an instigator for revving up the music and mood.

New Orleans musical families’ importance in carrying on the sound of the city from father or grandfather to son or daughter become prominent. The French clan is major in that number with Gerald being the son of bassist and vocalist George French and the nephew of Bob French all of whom boast a musical lineage going back decades.

Because he plays drums, many people think Bob was Gerald’s father. “I get that all of the time,” says Gerald adding that he was highly influenced by his uncle.

“I’m always the jokester, I’m always the prankster when it comes to certain things. It’s part of my personality. It’s something I used to see my Uncle Bob do. He would always have a good time as well as play good music.”

That Gerald didn’t take up the bass like his father made sense as, he says, if he played the same instrument they wouldn’t be able to perform together. He vividly remembers the first time they actually did share a bandstand.

“When I was a teenager, I would do sound for my dad,” he offers, adding that sometimes, when James Black was on his father’s gig, George would borrow his drums for Black to use. “Sometimes James Black would have drums and sometimes he wouldn’t have drums.” So it wasn’t unusual that George asked his son to bring his drums to his show at the Marriott hotel apparently for Black.

“I had a suit on and got everything set up and I go grab me a seat by the sound board. So five minutes before the gig, he (his father) goes ‘Come on, okay let’s go.’ And I said, ‘Come on, let’s go where?’ ‘Oh, you’re playing drums tonight.’ ‘Man why didn’t you tell me?’ I was on the gig and didn’t know I was, I the gig. I think it was kind of planned by him and he just didn’t want me to get nervous.”

Gerald grew up playing drums in the First African Baptist Church. “It was old-school gospel – strictly a pocket kind of groove,” he explains. “You just kept the groove and you kept your gig. The thing that I got out of playing in church was the discipline of playing in the pocket and knowing your role as a rhythm section musician and just holding things together.”

The church is also where he began singing and continued lifting his voice in high school, though, he was understandably somewhat intimidated in this endeavor because of the talented vocalists in his family. “Having somebody in your family who sings like my dad, it was like, ‘No, this is something I don’t even need to fool with.’”

Though Gerald readily admits he was really shy as a youngster, he recalls eventually coming out of his shell when he began to understand that he had his own voice. “I could do me and everything would be okay.”

An intensely involved musician, Gerald really goes after and incorporates the entire drum set making maximum use of the tonal qualities of what some might consider “auxiliary” elements like the cowbell and woodblock.

“That’s what I grew up listening to so I emulate a lot of those things,” he explains. “The cowbell is just an intricate part of that drumming style. To me, that’s the whole thing, you’ve got to use what you got. You’ve got cats that aren’t from here and they don’t understand the importance of that and they don’t understand the nuances that you can play with a cowbell. At Preservation Hall they don’t have a full drum set – not all the toms. There, the cowbell and woodblock are very important because I can still play different rhythmic ideas.”

Given his creds as the leader of the Tuxedo, which performs weekly at Bourbon Street’s Jazz Playhouse, his early years playing with the Young Olympia Brass Band and a standing gig on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Fritzel’s as well as his family’s background in classic jazz, people naturally consider Gerald to be a traditional drummer. “That’s not necessarily the case – I’m a musician,” he states.

His modern approach and influences from the likes of drummers Herlin Riley and David Lee, with whom he took lessons, can be detected when he performs with trumpeter and vocalist Leroy Jones. When Gerald is behind Jones, who he’s played with for decades and continues to travel with, he moves right along with the trumpeter when he takes more modern turns. Check it out on Jones’ 1997 release, Props for Pops.

“His songwriting, his passion for the music and how he takes traditional songs and puts his own spin on them, to me, that’s the whole thing of being an artist,” Gerald says in praise of Jones.

Gerald also spent 14 years backing vocalist Charmaine Neville, only departing the band to take over the Original Tuxedo.

“I hear certain things in the music and that’s what I try to play,” Gerald simply states. “It’s not a pile of technique, it’s musicality. I listen and serve the music.”

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

More than a century after his death and 131 years after he was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, the trailblazing the Rev. Augustus Tolton is just a few steps away from sainthood.

Tolton, who was born into slavery but escaped from bondage in Missouri with his mother when he was 7, became the first Black Catholic priest in the United States in 1886. He went on to found the first Black parish in Chicago before passing away in 1897 at only 43.

FR. TOLTON

Pope Francis, last week, signed decrees that made Tolton and seven other candidates for sainthood as “venerable,” bringing them closer to earning that hallowed designation. According to Church officials, the next step toward canonization is “blessed” status, which is received after a declaration of one confirmed miracle as a result of someone’s prayer to Tolton. A second confirmed miracle healing of a sick individual in Tolton’s name allows him to earn sainthood.

“We welcome this news from the Holy Father on the advancement of Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said in a statement. “His struggles to become a priest and his remarkable service to God’s people are admirable examples, particularly in these times of the value and dignity of every person.”

A German Franciscan priest arranged for Tolton to attend a seminary in Rome after seminaries in America slammed their doors on the hopeful African American. Tolton began his ministry in 1889, and soon after he founded St. Monica Catholic Church in the predominantly Black Chicago neighborhood known as Bronzeville.

In addition to the canonization process, Tolton and his life have been the subject of a successful play, “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” produced in Washington state by Saint Luke Productions, a professional theater and film company that focus on religiously-themed productions.

Tolton’s name also lives on in the names of several venerable institutions. Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, a school on the South Side of Chicago, is named after Tolton, as is the Tolton Peace Center of the Catholic Charities, a community-service center operated by the Archdiocese of Chicago.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Emmarie Huetteman
Contributing Writer

(Special from khn.org) — A new Trump administration proposal would change the civil rights rules dictating whether providers must care for patients who are transgender or have had an abortion. Supporters of the approach say it protects the freedom of conscience, but opponents say it encourages discrimination.

The sweeping proposal has implications for all Americans, though, because the Department of Health and Human Services seeks to change how far civil rights protections extend and how those protections are enforced.

Roger Severino, the director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, has been candid about his intentions to overturn an Obama-era rule that prohibited discrimination based on gender identity and termination of a pregnancy. In 2016, while at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he co-authored a paper arguing the restrictions threaten the independence of physicians to follow their religious or moral beliefs.

His office unveiled the proposed rule on May 24, when many people were focused on the start of the long Memorial Day holiday weekend.

The rule is the latest Trump administration proposal to strip protections for transgender Americans, coming the same week another directive was proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would allow homeless shelters to turn away people based on their gender identity.

The public was given 60 days to comment on the HHS proposal. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about it.

What would this proposal do?

Fundamentally, the proposed rule would overturn a previous rule that forbids health care providers who receive federal funding from discriminating against patients on the basis of their gender identity or whether they have terminated a pregnancy.

The Trump administration proposal would eliminate those protections, enabling providers to deny these groups care or insurance coverage without having to pay a fine or suffer other federal consequences.

That may mean refusing a transgender patient mental health care or gender-confirming surgery. But it may also mean denying patients care that has nothing to do with gender identity, such as a regular office visit for a bad cold or ongoing treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes.

“What it does, from a very practical point of view, is that it empowers bad actors to be bad actors,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told reporters.

The proposal would also eliminate protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity from several other health care regulations, like non-discrimination guidelines for the health care insurance marketplaces.

Does it affect only LGBTQ people?

The proposal goes beyond removing protections for the LGBTQ community and those who have had an abortion.

It appears to weaken other protections, such as those based on race or age, by limiting who must abide by the rules. The Trump proposal would scrap the Obama-era rule’s broad definition of which providers can be punished by federal health officials for discrimination, a complicated change critics have said could ease requirements for insurance companies, for instance, as well as the agency itself.

And the proposal erases many of the enforcement procedures outlined in the earlier rule, including its explicit ban on intimidation or retaliation. It also delegates to Severino, as the office’s director, full enforcement authority when it comes to things like opening investigations into complaints lodged under the non-discrimination rule.

Why did HHS decide to change the rule?

The Obama and Trump administrations have different opinions about whether a health care provider should be able to refuse service to patients because they are transgender or have had an abortion.

It all goes back to a section in the Affordable Care Act barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability or sex. President Barack Obama’s health officials said it is discrimination to treat someone differently based on gender identity or stereotypes.

It was the first time Americans who are transgender were protected from discrimination in health care.

But President Donald Trump’s health officials said that definition of sex discrimination misinterprets civil rights laws, particularly a religious freedom law used to shield providers who object to performing certain procedures, such as abortions, or treating certain patients because they conflict with their religious convictions.

“When Congress prohibited sex discrimination, it did so according to the plain meaning of the term, and we are making our regulations conform,” Severino said in a statement. “The American people want vigorous protection of civil rights and faithfulness to the text of the laws passed by their representatives.”

Much of what the Office for Civil Rights has done under Severino’s leadership is to emphasize and strengthen so-called conscience protections for health care providers, many of which existed well before Trump was sworn in. Last year, Severino unveiled a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, and his office recently finalized another rule detailing those protections and their enforcement.

The office also said the proposed rule would save about $3.6 billion over five years. Most of that would come from eliminating requirements for providers to post notices about discrimination, as well as other measures that cater to those with disabilities and limited English proficiency.

The rule would also save pro-viders money that might instead be spent handling grievances from those no longer protected.

The office “considers this a benefit of the rule,” said Katie Keith, co-founder of Out2Enroll, an organization that helps the LGBTQ community obtain health insurance. “Organizations will have lower labor costs and lower litigation costs because they will no longer have to process grievances or defend against lawsuits brought by transgender people.”

Why does this matter?

Research shows the LGBTQ community faces greater health challenges and higher rates of illness than other groups, making access to equitable treatment in health care all the more important.

Discrimination, from the misuse of pronouns to denials of care, is “commonplace” for transgender patients, according to a 2011 report by advocacy groups. The report found that 28 percent of the 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people interviewed said they had experienced verbal harassment in a health care setting, while 19 percent said they had been refused care due to their gender identity.

The report said 28 percent had postponed seeking medical attention when they were sick or injured because of discrimination.

Critics fear the rule would muddy the waters, giving patients less clarity on what is and is not permissible and how to get help when they have been the victims of discrimination.

Jocelyn Samuels, the Obama administration official who oversaw the implementation of the Obama-era rule, said that for now, even though the Trump administration’s HHS will not pursue complaints against those providers, Americans still have the right to challenge this treatment in court. Multiple courts have said the prohibition on sex discrimination includes gender identity.

“The administration should be in the business of expanding access to health care and health coverage,” Samuels told reporters on a conference call after the rule’s release. “And my fear is that this rule does just the opposite.”

This story also ran on Vice.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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