CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, November 10, 2005

New Orleans' Crime Drowns in Katrina's Wake

From "There has not been a single killing in New Orleans [including its most violence-prone areas], since the chaos that immediately followed Hurricane Katrina subsided. New Orleans, the nation's most dangerous city, has suddenly become perhaps its safest, and what had easily been the country's murder capital now has a murder rate of exactly zero... Since [Hurricane Katrina] some 60,000 to 80,000 residents have returned, a fraction of the city's previous population of 450,000. What is remarkable to criminologists, though, is how few criminals seem to be among them.

Peter Scharf, executive director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans, estimated that there were as many as 20,000 participants in the drug culture in the city before the storm. Those drug users and dealers were the engines of the city's crime, Mr. Scharf said, but are now largely absent. No one is certain where they wound up. Federal agents and police officials elsewhere say there have not been any noticeable spikes in crime in the cities that took in large numbers of hurricane refugees, including nearby Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and other cities in the Southeast.

What is known is that many of the most impoverished, crime-ridden sections of New Orleans remain largely empty, in part because the expense of returning and repairing homes is beyond the means of previous residents. There is no precise precedent for this transformation in the crime rate, law enforcement officials and academic experts say. While the few residents who have returned are holding their breath to see how long it lasts, the sudden change has become a subject of intense interest for those who study crime.

"This is one of the most interesting experiments in crime we've ever seen," Mr. Scharf said. "Without effective courts, corrections or rehabilitation, we have reduced the crime rate by 100 percent."  Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Scharf continued, "was one of the greatest crime-control tools ever deployed against a high-crime city." Before the storm, New Orleans was reeling, with a daily round of killings and gunfire as bad as any in the city's history; Mr. Scharf projected that without the hurricane there would have been 316 killings there in 2005...

[Lawrence N. Powell, a historian at Tulane University, summarized the tragedy of the situation.] "We've solved our crime problem in a brutally Darwinian way." That, Mr. Powell said, was too high a price to pay. "The fact that it would take a world-historic tragedy to solve your crime problem does not speak well for the civic culture," he said." [Mark Godsey]

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