By Garey Forster | NOLA.com Contributing Columnist | January 13, 2021
When governors and mayors begin and end terms of office there are several objective data points to look at to determine if they will be or were successful in carrying out their duties. Budgets and taxes come to mind.
When a new district attorney takes over, it is not so clear.
Now we’re all waiting in New Orleans to see how a new progressive district attorney organizes and operates his office, especially as the new DA has no experience prosecuting cases. Some intangibles to consider will be the cooperation and relationship that takes place between the police department and the DA’s office, especially since, as a councilmember, Jason Williams voted to cut the police budget by $11 million for this year.
It’ll be interesting to watch Williams’ relationships with federal partners like the FBI, DEA, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service, as well as the U.S. attorney, since some of them are participating in the investigation into his 11-count indictment for tax fraud soon to go on federal trial. That case is being handled by another U.S. attorney’s office, not that of the greater New Orleans area.
It would be unfortunate if the excellent partnerships that have existed with federal agencies do not continue into the future, everyone working together, pooling resources to fight violent crime in New Orleans.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission reports the most serious pending cases that the new DA inherited in the current Orleans jail inmate population as of Jan. 5: 619 violent felonies, 80 weapons felonies, 60 property felonies, within a felony pretrial total of 819.
Note that of the violent felonies, 168 are for homicides, 69 are for rape/sex crimes, 135 are for robbery, 161 are for battery/assault, and 62 are for attempted murder.
MCC stats are useful but can sometimes be misleading because every DA will achieve a conviction rate of 90% or more. The real issue is what percentage of the cases that the police bring to them are they accepting?
For instance, some offices only take about half of the cases brought to them by the police (national average for felony arrests to felony convictions is 54%) and their conviction rate is extremely high. Other offices, like outgoing District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s, attempted to take as many cases as he felt could result in convictions. He still maintained a conviction rate in the area of 90%.
Cannizzaro broke down his workload by violent and nonviolent offenders with emphasis on murderers and gang members. During his 12 years in office, Cannizzaro removed 725 killers from the streets of New Orleans (this number is actually over 11 years because the courts were mostly shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19).
No DA in Orleans parish has ever achieved such a high number in that span of time. Additionally, more than 100 violent street gang members were removed by utilizing the Louisiana racketeering statute and forming partnerships with federal law enforcement such as the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Homicides are now up 68% to 204 in 2020 (121 in 2019) which represents the highest number since 2007. Shootings are up 66% and carjackings are up 116%. That was before the City Council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell cut the police budget $11 million.
It’ll be up to Williams to keep the bad guys out of our neighborhoods.
Former District Attorney Eddie Jordan was a failure because he refused to accept a number of violent cases brought to him by the police. Criminals were being released and rearrested for committing the same types of offenses, but the DA’s office claimed the quality of police work was lacking. Regular meetings between the police and DA to discuss their cases should help improve the quality of police work and prevent history repeating itself.
Williams cut the police budget and the DA’s budget while on the council. Makes you wonder if he’s going to be committed to working closely with the police, and have the staff to do it. If they are not communicating often, that is where problems will begin.
Having been the floor leader in the state House for former District Attorney Harry Connick for 15 years, I’ve seen good times and bad. I’ve also been through the DA’s offices several times working for two different mayors.
These are unusual times with the pandemic affecting everyone’s behavior. It’s up to our new DA to stand for the rule of law and protect all communities to make New Orleans a safer place to live, work and visit.