OUT OF BALANCE
Racial Disparity Among Louisiana’s Sheriffs and Prosecutors
These are the predominantly white male faces of the sheriffs and prosecutors sitting at the top of Louisiana’s criminal justice system in 2023. These positions have significant influence in a state that has, until its recent drop to second place, led the nation – and by extension, the world – with its incarceration rates.
The juxtaposition of the lack of diversity in these roles and Louisiana’s racialized status as one of the United States’ top incarcerators is jarring.
Currently, only four sheriffs and five district attorneys (DAs) in Louisiana are Black out of 64 sheriffs and 42 DAs across the state. This means that although over 33% of Louisiana’s population is Black, just 6% of sheriffs and 12% of state DAs are Black. In a state without term limits on either position, these demographics can also stay in place indefinitely if no one challenges incumbents.
Similarly, only five DAs and one sheriff in Louisiana are women, although over half (51%) of Louisiana’s population is female. In fact, the December 2021 election of Sheriff Susan Hutson marked the first time that the state’s third most populous parish, Orleans Parish, elected a woman – and the first time that the state of Louisiana elected a Black woman – to the role of sheriff.
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. Statewide, Black people constituted 65% of people in Louisiana prisons as of 2022. Since 1983, the total jail population in Louisiana has also increased by 283%, with Black people making up 57% of the state’s jails in 2019.
Clearly, the people with chief roles in Louisiana’s criminal justice system do not reflect the state’s demographic diversity despite research that indicates that diversity in these ranks may increase public safety. 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.
Concerns with the prevailing law enforcement culture are embodied in the story of Khadijah Rashad, a Black woman and 63-year-old native of Lafayette Parish who has spent decades as an activist in Louisiana. Through her organizing work and local radio show, she has spoken out on various issues concerning the Black communities of Lafayette and New Iberia – from improving educational opportunities to Black girls having pride in wearing their natural hair. However, her most notable advocacy has come in reforming local law enforcement, especially after the 2020 death of her grandson 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 Bonnette’s scheduled release, Rashad and her family got the shocking phone call informing them that Bonnette had inexplicably 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.
In Rashad’s own words, “Child support should not be a death sentence.”
Bonnette’s death was the latest in a decade-plus pattern of lives lost in the Iberia Parish jail, which established a troubling track record of physical abuse from officers and an inability to care for people with mental illnesses. Only four months after Bonnette’s passing, Mandi Caliz, a 37-year-old mother of five, died in the same jail of drug complications after her arrest for marijuana possession – bringing into question the jail’s ability to provide adequate medical care.
For Khadijah Rashad’s family, after years of frustration and disappointment trying to get answers from Iberia Parish Sheriff Tommy Romero, a white man, she says, “No one has been brought to justice,” and she “still can’t believe how much hate those people have in their hearts.”
Given this background, and as the state has endured a rise in shootings, murders, and other violence, is there potential for reform that allows law enforcement to ally with Black residents like Rashad and fairly pursue their obligation to administer the laws of Louisiana? The answer, in part, may lie in examining the diversity of the criminal justice system itself.
As of September 2022, although over 33% of Louisiana’s population is Black, just 12% of state DAs and 6% of state sheriffs are Black. This mirrors national data, as 90% of sheriffs across the country are white men, who comprise only 30% of the U.S. population.
Similarly, while over half (51%) of Louisiana’s population is female, only 11% of the state’s DAs and just 1% of the state’s sheriffs are women. As of June 2020, there were 36 states across the country where fewer than 5% of sheriffs were women, and 16 states with no women sheriffs at all.
Thus, despite research that shows that communities benefit from diverse law enforcement, Louisiana’s sheriffs and DAs in no way reflect the state’s demographic diversity.
To further complicate matters, the largely white male sheriffs and DAs across the state are elected officials virtually unburdened by the presence of term limits. Sheriffs and prosecutors serve four-year and six-year terms, respectively – both without limits on the consecutive terms they can serve. For example, Craig Webre has remained as the Lafourche Parish sheriff since his election in 1991, presiding over a parish where three on-duty officers repeatedly abused a Black man with cerebral palsy during a 2020 arrest. Also, Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, a white man in a majority-Black parish, still maintains his 20-year incumbency despite controversial slavery-evoking remarks claiming that instead of decarceration reform, he’d 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.”
Without term limits, sheriffs and prosecutors can remain in office without significant opposition once their terms expire, regardless of their office’s misconduct throughout their tenure. Sheriffs, in particular, benefit greatly from incumbency – research shows that sheriffs have an incumbency advantage that “far exceeds that of other local offices.” For example, controversial East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III, a white man, has won every reelection since 2007 in a parish that is nearly half-Black (47%), including wins against Black candidates who have challenged his cooperation with ICE and the poor conditions of the jail. His most recent win is even more sobering given that it follows the shooting death of Travis Stevenson, a Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot 21 times by East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies. Gautreaux was named as a defendant in a subsequent suit brought by Stevenson’s family and was reelected three years after Stevenson’s death.
Louisiana’s racialized criminal justice system urges us to consider whether electing more diverse law enforcement leadership would translate to a change in the criminal justice experiences of Black residents in Louisiana. Louisiana is an epicenter of mass incarceration in the United States, “lock[ing] up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth,” according to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative. In a state where jail incarceration has more than tripled since the 1980s, Black individuals remain the most incarcerated group in the state – making up 57% of the jail population. Comparatively, Black people make up 33% of the state’s population. To put it plainly, a state criminal justice system controlled almost entirely by white men is responsible for the disproportionate prosecution and incarceration of predominantly Black citizens.
The demographic disparities that color the state’s criminal justice system are no secret, nor are they an accident. Indeed, a state cannot become an international leader in incarceration, surpassing the imprisonment rates of China and Russia, without proving itself incredibly adept in the practice of utilizing confinement as punishment. Accordingly, men and women across the state, who are disproportionately Black, remain in harsh, unsafe conditions across Louisiana’s myriad carceral facilities, demonstrated by the number of jail deaths in recent years – including Raymond Bonnette Sr.
Racially disparate prosecution and incarceration not only force Black people into detainment in damaging carceral settings and long-term separation from their families, but also create collateral impacts that have lasting effects on them well after they leave incarceration. Even a short stay in jail can cause psychological damage, and correlate to an increase in poverty, substance abuse and rates of homelessness and unemployment. Research also suggests that longer prison sentences do not increase public safety, are not a real deterrent to crime, and use resources that could be used elsewhere. Also, longer sentences typically lead to a more difficult time successfully reentering society upon release, making the discretion of prosecutors ever more important. As such, the incarceration of Black people not only harms people in jail and prisons, but also, by extension, impacts the families and communities they come from.
Prioritizing diversity in law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices is, of course, not a panacea to the overcriminalization of Black people – a problem rooted in generations of systemic racism. However, as highlighted in a recent report by the Tampa Bay Times, research suggests that a focus on diversity may have “measurable impacts.”
Indeed, recent studies found evidence that officers of color were less likely to use excessive force, and make fewer stops and arrests than white officers, especially in predominantly Black communities. Even within the ranks of law enforcement, officers have reported that officer diversity helps with communicating with the community, increases public trust.
Likewise, diversity in prosecutors’ offices can often mean a greater understanding of the context surrounding the lives of the accused. A study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign emphasizes the need for prosecutorial reform, saying, “With race and gender inequality baked into the criminal justice system, repairing the broken demographics of prosecutorial power is an urgent goal.” Indeed, for years Orleans Parish, which is 60% Black, had the nation’s highest rate of wrongful convictions per capita – largely under the leadership of white male prosecutors Harry Connick Sr. and Leon Cannizzaro – a ranking it held as recently as 2017. Statewide, 82% of Louisiana’s wrongful convictions since 1989 have been of Black individuals, implying that more diverse DAs could be critical to ensuring fairer convictions.
As a sign of progress, from the 1980s to the turn of the century, many American police departments and judicial districts began to make strides toward increasing representation, driven by affirmative action policies and heightened calls for reform by citizens. Perhaps nowhere else in the country has there been a more demonstrative realization of this trend than in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, where a flurry of recent elections has seen progressive politicians elevated to leading roles in the parish’s criminal justice system.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, a former criminal defense attorney and city councilman who mounted a 2020 campaign drawing on the energy for reform after the murder of George Floyd, promised to reimagine a “dual-purpose” justice system that “long offered justice for the wealthy and connected, but meted out punishment to Black and poor people.” This platform was a stark juxtaposition against the previous district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, who came under public and legal scrutiny for witness intimidation, threatening fake subpoenas and arrests of uncooperative witnesses.
As one of only five Black people holding the role of a parish’s top prosecutor, Williams has found himself the subject of increased scrutiny by proponents and critics alike. Beyond the concerns surrounding the recent rise in violent crime, Williams has found his administration blamed for a delay in convictions – a trend which he attributes to the aftermath of COVID-19 and the lasting impact of Hurricane Ida upon Louisiana. He has also been pressed to implement sentencing enhancements in cases involving firearms, which saw minors charged as adults in certain cases of violent crime – disappointing Williams’ progressive allies.
Orleans Parish is also notable for the December 2021 election of Sheriff Susan Hutson. Hutson narrowly defeated 17-year incumbent Marlin Gusman, who was the subject of a federal court-ordered monitor after a judge found that the Orleans Justice Center’s conditions violated people’s rights after a string of jail deaths. Hutson is the first Black woman to hold the position of sheriff in the history of Louisiana, running on a reform platform that included opposing the construction of a new jail facility and investing in community resources.
Hutson’s win was both unprecedented and far from guaranteed. Her slim margin of victory (winning only 53% of the vote) suggests an Orleans Parish both interested in her reform policies, but hesitant to forgo the department culture that her predecessor had cultivated. While her platform and support by criminal justice reform groups indicate Hutson’s commitment to the former, a unique challenge remains before the Orleans Parish sheriff and her counterpart in the DA’s office: heightened scrutiny during their tenure, including attempts to undermine their credibility and ability to serve. However, it may be too early to identify a clear pattern around this development for these two Louisiana leaders, especially with this only being Sheriff Hutson’s first year of tenure. Nevertheless, unrelenting criticism poses a possible obstacle that Williams and Hutson – and elected officials of color more generally – may face when assuming roles traditionally held by white men.
While efforts to diversify the Louisiana criminal justice system remain poised for an uphill battle, in which cultural norms and controversial incumbents battle with reformist agendas that prioritize community and a reduction in violent crime, it is evident that diversity may be a first step in holding historically discriminatory systems accountable. Furthermore, it appears that prioritizing diversity across police agencies and prosecutorial offices may have measurable impacts in ensuring that criminal justice actors, who wield a disproportionate degree of power across the state of Louisiana, are unable to exacerbate potentially racially disparate practices without consequence.
Louisiana remains in the early stages of this effort, with the dual elections of Jason Williams and Susan Hutson signaling a public interest in diversifying the state’s criminal justice system. Even so, these efforts have borne some early fruit. Take, for example, Jason Williams’ recent decision to review all cases prosecuted by a one-time assistant district attorney Michelle Odinet, who recently resigned from her seat as a Lafayette judge after a video with racist language recorded at her home surfaced. It is unlikely that such a decision, which analyzes the career of an individual who began her work as a prosecutor in 1991, would have been possible without the support of a district attorney with an awareness of structural racism and its devastating impacts. Overall, as of November 2022, Williams’ office has obtained early release for at least 168 people through resentencing.
Likewise, upon Sheriff Hutson’s election, she created a transition team to do a deep analysis and present proposals for how the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office could improve. In June 2022, the team released a report with over 200 recommendations after incorporating months of community feedback and research.
Further, despite incumbency advantage, Louisiana saw 17 sheriffs replace long-term incumbents in 2020.
These reforms provide a glimmer of hope for Louisiana and its criminal justice reality today. If Louisiana strives to diversify state law enforcement and prosecution predominantly led by white men, while building additional systems of accountability to the community, there is some possibility that a transformed system will produce a different outcome in the state. These changes are aimed at producing public safety that is rooted in humanization, rather than criminalization.
For Khadijah Rashad, it was this very humanity she desired to see in the handling of her grandson’s death. Instead, she only saw a lack of accountability from local law enforcement that denies her day with justice. But Rashad’s somber words also reflect a vision for what is possible in the future for law enforcement: “More compassion would be shown toward Black [people] if the folks in the system – officers, DAs and judges – were more diverse. For my peace of mind, I just have to believe. We can’t do any worse than what has already been done.”
Out of Balance highlights the lack of diversity among Louisiana’s district attorneys (DAs) and sheriffs, which runs counter to the overrepresentation of Black residents in the state’s criminal justice system. As a result, decisions about jail conditions, prosecution and sentencing in Louisiana are made by people who do not fully represent impacted communities.
But there is a better way.
Louisianans can take the following three actions to support the creation of a Louisiana criminal justice system whose stakeholders effectively represent those it disproportionately harms:
1. Learn More About Your Local Sheriff and DA.
Knowledge is power. It is also key to law enforcement accountability – if we know who our criminal justice stakeholders are, we can ensure they are responsive to the communities they serve.
Click here to learn who your local sheriff is. And click here to find out more information on your local DA.
You can also consider hosting candidates’ forums in your community to learn more about how those vying for your vote to be your future DA and sheriff will be accountable to the community.
2. Write to or Meet With Your Local Sheriff or DA To Ask How They are Prioritizing Diversity in Their Office.
Research has shown that diversity within law enforcement may lend itself toward more racially equitable criminal justice outcomes. Increasing diverse representation in our sheriff and DA offices can thus represent a positive step toward ensuring law enforcement is responsive to the communities it serves. Consider writing a letter to or meeting with your local DA and sheriff to determine how they are prioritizing diversity within their ranks – including within the areas of recruitment, hiring, promotion and retention.
One of the most important places you can hold law enforcement accountable is at the ballot box! While DA elections are a few years away – 2026 – sheriff elections are happening this year.
3. Vote in Upcoming Sheriff and DA Elections.
In Louisiana, each parish – other than Orleans Parish – will hold a sheriff election on Nov. 18 (with an Oct. 14 primary election).
To make sure your voice is heard, you must vote. Learn more about how to register to vote – including how to do so online – here.
Case Study: Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
Even in parishes where there has been a transfer of power within sheriff or prosecutorial offices, there remains a legacy of racial discrimination and the consequences that come with an absence of diversity reflective of impacted communities.
In Jefferson Parish, for example, Sheriff Joseph P. Lopinto III has served as the top law enforcement official in the parish since his election in 2018. Before taking office, he served as chairman of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice in the Louisiana House of Representatives.
Yet, even given the sheriff’s political savvy and short tenure, Jefferson Parish has been embroiled in its share of scandal since Lopinto assumed his current role. In November 2021, the ACLU of Louisiana filed its fifth lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and urged the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate. Lopinto himself was named as a defendant in a 2020 lawsuit, in which plaintiff Michael Lott accused Jefferson Parish law enforcement officials of using excessive force while in a local Walmart. And in 2022, two Jefferson Parish deputies were charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed man, Daniel Vallee.
It is likely no coincidence that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has built its reputation upon the infamy of Sheriff Harry Lee, who served seven consecutive terms. Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, became known for espousing anti-Blackness and his association with American white supremacist David Duke. While facing calls for his resignation by the NAACP, Lee declared: “If there are some young Blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white area, they will be stopped.” Almost 30% of Jefferson Parish’s population is Black.
Lee had gained incredible popularity and political strength over the course of his tenure, once boasting, “Why would I want to be governor when I can be king?” This statement is emblematic of not only how entrenched Lee, and others like him, are politically, but also speaks to how entrenched the culture of law enforcement is throughout the state. The fact that Lee was a person of color signifies that while increasing diversity may be a step toward changing culture, pursuing diversity solely for diversity’s sake is not and cannot be the goal. Rather, hiring, retaining and promoting diverse sheriffs and DAs should be a means of establishing leaders that hold themselves accountable to those disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system.
Acknowledgements: The SPLC Action Fund would like to show our deepest appreciation to Adam Kluge for his contribution to the research and development of this project, and to Khadijah Rashad for sharing her personal story with us. We would also like to acknowledge photographer, Damon Gardner, and developer John Hancock, for their roles in the project's design and presentation.
Methodology: To ensure the accuracy of racial and gender identities, the SPLC Action Fund made the following efforts to verify how each individual pictured above identifies:
For sheriff’s agencies, we referred to demographic data and electoral history collected by the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. For prosecutorial officials, we referenced the Louisiana District Attorneys Association’s roster. Furthermore, the team referred to public information such as news articles, Facebook posts and biographies to further validate its research.
Some agencies do not distinguish between ethnicity and race, which can obscure Latinx representation. The U.S. Census, in contrast, allows responders to identify by both and includes a category called “non-Hispanic white” to capture the share of the population that identifies as white and not of Latinx descent. To avoid any potential misidentifications, this project examines Black and white actors without an additional ethnicity categorization.
Likewise, through our research, we did not become aware of any sheriff or DA self-identifying as any gender other than male or female, nor are other genders recorded in our jail or prison data sources.
The inspiration for this project comes from a 2021 piece from the Tampa Bay Times titled The Color of Justice, which discussed the lack of diversity in the leadership of Florida’s criminal justice system.