U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite. who took the top U.S. Justice Department job in the Eastern District of Louisiana in September, made one of his first public appearances last week since taking the job. The occasion: Tulane Hillel's "The Big Issue" discussion series, which focused that night on violent crime. In his 20-minute presentation, Polite — a native New Orleanian — opened up about the death of his brother, an event he said made him want to become a prosecutor.
"I lost my brother on the streets of New Orleans," he said. "We're going into his bedroom, and seeing the environment he grew up in, and I looked at the walls that surrounded his room. They were decorated with the funeral programs of his friends that had died in the street on one wall, and on the other wall were the various shirts we wore to each funeral. That's what he woke up to each day. That type of environment, where that level of criminality becomes normal, has to affect your concept of life.
"To this day I'm wracked with some guilt about not impacting his life. That is what I ask myself to do every day and what I'm asking you do to today, and what I'm asking you to do every day as the U.S. attorney: Step out from behind your desk, step out from your safe homes, get out into our communities, get into our schools, get into our churches, and make a difference in the lives of those young men before it's too late."
Among his office's long-term solutions to solving the murder problem, Polite said, are a strong focus on increasing felony arrests and "focusing on a disproportionately small number of individuals responsible for a disproportionate large amount of the violent crime we see in our streets."
He also pointed to several studies that illustrated the effect the education system can have on violent crime, and "how a 5 percent increase in high school graduation rates for men in this country would result in 1,275 fewer murders."
"There is a direct correlation between not graduating high school and becoming a violent offender," Polite said, adding that 67 percent of inmates in the state prison systems, 56 percent of inmates in the federal system, and 69 percent in local jails are not high school graduates — while only 20 to 25 percent of those inmates have graduated.
"What my boss (U.S. Attorney Gen.) Eric Holder told me, the paperwork is always going to be there," Polite said. "What you have to do is push that away and get out into the community."