District attorneys historically get elected and re-elected by putting people behind bars.
No DA in Louisiana would be foolish enough to run on Blackstone’s maxim that “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The winning slogan is usually the opposite.
That’s why a lot of people saw New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s remarks at the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s annual awards luncheon Tuesday (Feb. 5) as the unofficial opening of his 2020 re-election campaign, a gauntlet thrown at those trying to give “tough on crime” a bad name.
That includes the folks who are looking to reduce jail and prison population by eliminating bail, reducing sentences and offering alternative forms of punishment. Cannizzaro isn’t buying it.
“We have a crime problem,” he warned the crowd. “We do not have an incarceration problem, and the notion that our jails are packed with low-level offenders and unlucky drug-possession arrestees is a complete falsehood.”
High-sounding claims of criminal justice reform, the DA suggested, are not what they appear to be.
“City officials won’t come out and say it, but they are experimenting on us as a society to determine how much more violent crime we are willing to tolerate to enable them to boast a lower incarceration” rate, Cannizzaro said.
In a campaign setting, this would be the place to cue the chants of “Lock them up! … Lock them up!”
But it’s not clear how big or enthusiastic those crowds will be over the coming months as even many conservative politicians and think tanks have embraced the policy changes in bail, jail and sentencing that Cannizzaro denounces.
The same day that the New Orleans district attorney was regaling the Metropolitan Crime Commission crowd with stories of how repeat offenders were being caught and released at “cartoonish speed,” President Donald Trump was using his State of the Union address to highlight the freeing of two former inmates.
One of those was Matthew Charles, who was serving a 35-year federal prison sentence for a crack cocaine offense and ineligible for early release as a “career offender.”
But Charles was able to attend the State of the Union as the president’s guest after becoming one of the first people to receive a reduced sentence under the First Step Act, which Trump signed into law in December.
The federal law was passed with strong bipartisan support (360-59 in the House and 87-12 in the Senate) and with the backing of conservative organizations like the advocacy partner of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform.
It also had the backing of the Louisiana Family Forum and the Pelican Institute who has pushed a similar effort to overhaul Louisiana’s criminal justice system.
“This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community,” Trump said. “The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption.”
It’s not clear where Cannizzaro and Trump differ on issues of incarceration, although the district attorney is clear that he doesn’t like what’s happening in his jurisdiction.
“Look, I absolutely want to see fewer people locked up in New Orleans and throughout our state,” Cannizzaro said. “But we must get there because fewer people are committing crimes, not because of some grand social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naïve politicians.”
Assuming that he was not blasting Trump, Cannizzaro almost certainly was taking aim at City Council President Jason Williams, a defense attorney, who has already announced his intentions to run for district attorney in an election still 21 months away.
Williams described the DA’s remarks Tuesday as “fear mongering.”
Later in the week, Williams led a unanimous City Council in passing a resolution condemning “Cannizzaro’s barbaric practice of jailing victims of domestic and sexual violence on material witness warrants” based on reports from the advocacy group Court Watch NOLA.
“Our DA is either disingenuous or willfully ignorant about how much harm is caused to the mission of a safer city by trying to shoehorn outdated methodologies in a system working to recover from centuries-long biased policies,” Williams said.
The DA’s mission, Cannizzaro said, ‘is not about convictions. It is about maintaining and improving public safety.”
Whether he ends up running for re-election or not, Cannizzaro’s convictions are going to be tested in the 2020 election.
Tim Morris is a columnist on the Latitude team at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana.