BY MATT SLEDGE | NOLA.COM | September 23, 2020
Orleans Parish district attorney candidates are set to speak at a forum Wednesday night hosted by a coalition of groups backing a dramatic set of policy changes, a sign that progressive criminal justice reformers have secured a prominent platform to shape the Nov. 3 election.
All four DA candidates — City Council President Jason Williams along with former criminal court judges Arthur Hunter, Keva Landrum and Morris Reed — were announced participants in the People’s DA Coalition event, an online forum where the group was to quiz the candidates on its policy proposals.
The coalition, which is made up of over 30 groups and individuals including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Independent Police Monitor, New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and Democratic Socialists of America, was put together last October, according to former judge and city criminal justice commissioner Calvin Johnson, who helps lead it.
At the time, many people in political circles expected that current District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, whose second six-year term will expire at the end of the year, would seek re-election. Since Oct. 2018, City Council President Jason Williams seemed poised to run against him in a race that would feature a clash of personalities and ideologies.
Cannizzaro, a tough-on-crime DA in the classic mold, was once a statewide leader in the use of habitual offender statutes that raise defendants’ sentences due to prior convictions. He’d spoken about the need to be tough on juvenile crime and he continued to prosecute marijuana offenses throughout his time in office.
Williams opposed all of those policies.
The coalition includes groups that have been sharply critical of the DA, like a recall effort dubbed “Can Cannizzaro,” or have even sued him over the issuance of fake subpoenas, like the American Civil Liberties Union. But the contours of the race were reshaped when Cannizzaro announced — 30 minutes before the end of qualifying in July — that he would retire.
It has been further shaken by an 11-count tax fraud indictment against Williams.
Still, Cannizzaro’s retirement hasn’t put an end to the groups’ involvement in the race. In fact, it has in some ways offered them a broader field on which to push progressive policies in both the DA’s race as well as a 15 judicial races.
Some groups are writing platforms and hosting debates, others are raising money and directly endorsing candidates, including a crop of defense attorneys. Many say they hope to push city criminal justice leaders to break with the policies that made Louisiana the most incarcerated place in the world.
It remains unclear how effective the groups will be during an election season where the presidential contest and the coronavirus pandemic are already dominating headlines, and in a city where many more traditional organizations have a much longer track record. But observers say the burst of activity bears close attention.
“We haven’t seen anything like it,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. “This seems to be a new breed of organization.”
Johnson said the coalition always hoped to focus more on the future, regardless of whether Cannizzaro ran, and it isn’t endorsing candidates, although some group members have their choices.
When it comes to the DA race, the group wants New Orleans’ top prosecutor not to seek the death penalty, to end the use of the habitual offender law, to file bar complaints against their own employees for ethics violations, to create a “conviction integrity unit” to review old cases, to never try children in adult court and to “incarcerate as a last resort, not a first option.”
The platform resembles that of “progressive prosecutor” candidates who have made waves in other U.S. cities. But while the national conversation on criminal justice reform has changed dramatically in recent years, some observers said that hadn’t translated locally.
Graham Bosworth, who ran for Criminal District Court judge in 2014 and is running again this year, said that when he spoke of “inequities” in the system during his first race, he felt like he was “screaming into the void.”
He credits efforts to pass a package of reform bills in the Louisiana Legislature in 2017, and the referendum to do away with future split jury verdicts in 2018, as reshaping the local politics.
“There is a real change in the political landscape, frankly,” he said.
It’s not clear yet whether the shift is a tremor or an earthquake. An alphabet soup of groups like BOLD, SOUL, the Independent Women’s Organization and the Alliance for Good Government have long endorsed candidates in New Orleans. Chervenak said it was “really hard to say” how much sway the new breed of organizations would have.
Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the Metropolitan Crime Coalition, a criminal justice watchdog organization that doesn’t endorse, said he believes the average resident still isn’t too focused on the DA race given the various calamities of 2020. He also expressed some skepticism of all the “reform” talk.
“‘Reform’ doesn’t necessarily mean better,” Goyeneche said. “The candidates need to realize that they’re no longer going to be criminal defense attorneys, their obligations are not going to be to the defendants but to the public, to the victims and citizens.”
Besides the People’s DA Coalition, a variety of groups also hope to push candidates to endorse criminal justice reforms, or to endorse candidates pushing criminal justice reforms.
A coalition called the Youth Justice Advocates on Tuesday released a platform aimed at ending racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and reducing the number of kids behind bars. It’s hosting a juvenile judge candidate forum on Oct. 1 and a “virtual breakfast” with the DA candidates on Oct. 10.
Meanwhile, a coalition including the Innocence Project New Orleans, Court Watch NOLA and the Orleans Public Defenders is hosting a series of judicial candidate forums.
The coalition isn’t endorsing candidates, but Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens alleged a “clear conflict” in the Orleans Public Defenders co-hosting a candidate forum in his race on Tuesday because he’s running against attorney Meghan Garvey, an employee of the agency. In a statement, the coalition expressed regret that Sens pulled out and said it aimed to educate the public on all candidates’ platforms.
Some groups are hoping to more directly move votes rather than offer general policy proposals.
Last week Voters Organized to Educate endorsed a slate of 11 candidates, including former criminal court judge Arthur Hunter for DA, and a group called the PAC for Justice has endorsed a slate of seven candidates for local judicial office, many with current or former experience as public defenders. Among the candidates is Derwyn Bunton, the current chief of the Orleans Public Defenders.
The group’s platform includes dramatically curtailing the use of money bail, shorter sentences and ending the “routine” use of incarceration for probation violations. The group hasn’t yet released a list of donors. Jon Wool, a volunteer, said they include “a mix of local and non-local individuals and foundations.”