By Jillian Kramer | | March 7, 2023

As violent crime surges, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams will begin using a prosecutorial tool his office long avoided that can significantly lengthen the prison sentences of people convicted of multiple felonies.

In a shift from the progressive reforms promised during his campaign for office, Williams on Tuesday said that New Orleans prosecutors will now employ Louisiana’s habitual offender law, which allows prosecutors to enhance a defendant’s sentence by decades — and even life in prison — if he or she has previous felony convictions.

The tactic, which leaves little leeway for a judge to intervene, was regularly used by former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Williams’ critics see it as an important tool for taking violent criminals off the streets. But it is often viewed by advocates of criminal justice reform as a weapon to force stiff plea deals that contributed to high rates of incarceration, particularly of Black men.

Williams vowed to eliminate the law’s use when he was elected as New Orleans’ first progressive top prosecutor, one of several campaign promises that he said would allow for reforms of the criminal justice system without impacting his office’s ability to punish the most violent offenders.

But as violence has spread and criticism of his office has echoed throughout the city, Williams said on Tuesday that “the habitual offender law, although it was misused and overused in Orleans Parish, it is a legal and lawful tool” that should now be aimed at those accused of violent crimes.

In a change from the approach taken by Cannizzaro and his other predecessors, Williams said he will only use so-called multiple bills in cases where a defendant is charged with a violent crime.

“To be clear, my view on how the habitual offender law was historically used in Orleans Parish hasn’t changed,” Williams said. “It is really clear that [the law was] used for decades to over-incarcerate New Orleanians for low-level, non-violent offenses that had very little impact on public safety.”

But, he added: “As it stands right now, the level of violence has to be abated. And this is one of the tools we plan on using to do that.”

Campaign promises

When Williams took office in 2021, he made significant changes to how the district attorney’s office operated. Several attorneys who served under his predecessor were pushed out in his initial weeks in the office, some to be replaced by former criminal defense attorneys. He instructed prosecutors not to charge most cases of low-level drug possession and to stop opposing parole bids. He also created a civil rights division that has freed people whose convictions came amid prosecutorial misconduct.

But over the past two years, with a spike in homicides, carjackings and other violent crimes that has put city residents on edge, Williams has steadily added back some of the tough-on-crime prosecutorial tools he long criticized as a City Council member and during his campaign for district attorney.

In May 2021, Williams began charging some juveniles as adults. He never put in place a written policy for evidence disclosure. And more recently, he has pushed prosecutors to seek higher bail amounts despite a campaign pledge to advocate for alternatives to the current cash-bail system.

Throughout the last year, prosecutors have almost uniformly invoked a firearms-sentencing provision — which, similar to the habitual offender statute, extends the sentence of gun-related convictions — at Williams’ instruction. Last year, the provision was invoked 587 times.

“There are campaign promises, and there’s an oath,” Williams said Tuesday, shortly after a news conference announcing his partnership with attorney Morris Bart to aid in case screening. “The oath is to do this job. I’m not using this tool to increase the numbers of convictions or the length of sentences as some sort of measure of success in this office. It is purely to make sure that individuals who hurt people…get taken off the streets for the amount of time that their level of violence warrants.”

Williams’ conservative critics have highlighted his reluctance to reverse his views on the habitual offender statute as failing to protect the community.

In January, Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog group the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said that to “play the role that the district attorney’s office can play in reducing violent crime in the community, he needs to revisit his absolute ban on ever invoking the habitual offender statute.” 

Meanwhile, news of his reversal has worried some of his supporters.

“The multiple bill statute is inequitable, unjust and inherently racist,” said Lindsey Hortenstine, spokesperson for Orleans Public Defenders. “It has historically been abused to secure guilty pleas from innocent people and intimidate others from exercising their right to trial. This policy doesn’t make anyone any safer.”

Cases of violence 

Louisiana law already allows life sentences for the most violent of crimes, including murder and first-degree rape, but the habitual offender statute can lead to longer sentences for other crimes of violence.

Simple burglary, armed robbery, or purse snatching, for example, are three crimes among the most common to result in life sentences for people with repeat offenses, a 2021 analysis by the Times-Picayune showed. Most of those people, the analysis revealed, were Black.

In 2017, a statewide criminal-justice law overhaul hindered the power of the habitual offender statute, eliminating life sentences for those convicted of a fourth non-violent offense and reducing the maximum penalties for many other crimes. But the statute can still impose weighty sentences — for example, a 20-year sentence for a fourth non-violent felony offense — and it remains a powerful prosecutorial tool to incarcerate for life those who commit violent crimes.

Williams said he will direct the application of the statute toward robberies, including carjackings, which have risen sharply in number in recent years and for which sentencing guidelines vary widely: In Louisiana, a carjacking conviction is punishable by a few as two years and as many as two decades.

Crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence — some of which can carry only months-long sentences — could also be candidates for the invocation of the statute, Williams said.

Parameters for prosecutors

To deploy the statute, prosecutors will have to petition Williams or First Assistant District Attorney Ned McGowan and receive permission for its use before it’s invoked in court. They’ll also undergo training on the law’s uses, as well as its “fair and ethical application,” Williams said.

The first training will be held Thursday.

Williams banned the statute’s invocation when he assumed office more than two years ago. As a result, many of his prosecutors — more than half of whom have less than a year’s experience at the office — have never applied the habitual offender law to their cases, he said.

Their training will be supplemented by a written policy on the use of the statute that has been created with the help of Williams’ civil rights division.

Notably, that unit has ardently worked to reduce the sentences of people charged under the law. Since Williams took office, the division has intervened in at least 138 cases in which people were convicted under the statute, vacating 24 convictions and reducing the sentences of at least 112 people, according to publicly available data on the district attorney’s office website.

Two years ago, its attorneys worked to free a 65-year-old New Orleans man who had served a dozen years of a life sentence after he was convicted of stealing a tourist’s wallet at a restaurant.

“What we’ve been endeavoring to put together now is a process in which the default is to not use it,” Williams said.