By Matt Sledge | Nola.com | May 8, 2020
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced on Friday that he was furloughing 56 employees, including investigators and victim counselors, as the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit home for a criminal justice agency that weathered past downturns without cuts.
The full-time furloughs, which affect 29 percent of the office’s 193-member workforce, will last until at least Aug. 2. Cannizzaro said he hopes to bring the employees back once the office is put on a sounder financial footing. Prosecutors weren’t affected because their salaries are largely paid by the state, he said.
The District Attorney’s Office faces a projected $700,000 budget shortfall this calendar year due to a sharp drop in court conviction costs, bail fees, bond forfeitures and property seizures, Cannizzaro said.
State courts are set to start reopening later this month. But Cannizzaro’s announcement signals that even when the physical shutdowns end, the coronavirus pandemic could continue to snarl the criminal justice system for months.
Cannizzaro’s decision is a rare retrenchment for an office that has avoided the furloughs, hiring freezes and contract cuts that have been common at the Orleans Public Defenders over the past decade.
Compared to the public defenders, the agency draws a greater share of its budget from state and city funding, as opposed to traffic ticket and conviction costs.
“There hasn’t been anything that even remotely approaches what we’re seeing happen right now,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “And this is just the first round of cuts. A lot is going to depend on how quickly the city’s revenue sources rebound.”
Office employees were informed Thursday that they would be furloughed at the end of Friday. The agency anticipates that they will be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits under the federal CARES Act passed in March. That legislation allows laid-off employees to collect up to $600 a week in benefits through July, on top of the maximum $247 per week that Louisiana normally provides.
The affected employees all receive some of their salary from the portion of the DA’s budget that comes from the city, Cannizzaro said.
In a statement, the DA tied the cuts to his longstanding complaint that he receives less money from the city than other district attorneys receive from their parishes on a proportional basis.
More trouble could be on the horizon for the District Attorney’s Office and other criminal justice agencies. State lawmakers are already anticipating a huge shortfall as they craft a budget this summer due to business shutdowns and the oil crash.
The DA’s action puts Cannizzaro in line with the Orleans Public Defenders, which began furloughing some of the office’s highest-paid employees in mid-April and the rest on May 1. The public defenders’ furloughs rise from 10 to 30 percent of the employee’s pay, with higher-paid employees taking bigger hits.
The public defenders have also stopped assigning private attorneys to defendants who can’t be served directly by the agency due to conflicts of interest. Nearly two dozen inmates sat in jail without attorneys on Thursday because of that service cut, according to the office.