By John Simerman & Matt Sledge | NOLA.com | February 15, 2022
When a pregnant employee of McDonald’s was arrested on a 4-year-old domestic violence warrant last week, a prosecutor working for Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams pitched the court on a $100,000 bail.
A public defender called it outrageous. Her 23-year-old client wept. Magistrate Commissioner Albert Thibodeaux had to make sure he’d heard correctly.
“$100,000?” Thibodeaux said. “Any basis, any analysis regarding these facts? Have you spoken with the victim?”
The prosecutor explained that the figure came from a chart: he was merely following his office’s new, fixed bail “schedule.” Thibodeaux, unimpressed, set the woman’s bail on a home invasion count at a tenth of the DA’s request.
That courtroom exchange was one of many in recent days featuring Williams’ new, bail-heavy response to a violent crime surge and mounting political pressure to hold violent and repeat offenders in jail.
Over his first year in office, Williams avoided weighing in on bond amounts at most initial appearances in Magistrate Court, defense attorneys and judges say. Suddenly, however, his prosecutors are pushing hard for massive bail amounts.
The bond schedule is among several moves by Williams to address concerns over the frequent releases of suspects arrested in violent crimes. He also has pledged to beef up case screening, while under fire for allowing dozens of suspects in violent crimes to go free from jail from missed charging deadlines.
In a statement this week, Williams downplayed the idea that the high bond recommendations from the new schedule marks a sharp reversal, insisting his prosecutors have always been able to recommend bonds.
“So, what you see now isn’t very new, but it is a concerted proactive effort to be clearer and unequivocal about our position on these matters of violent crime,” Williams said, “because instead of others taking full responsibility for their actions and legal responsibility, some have unfairly and inaccurately blamed our office for bonds, thereby distorting our policies and record.”
But to supporters drawn to Williams’ progressive platform in 2020, when he won the DA’s race handily in a runoff over Judge Keva Landrum, the pivot to recommending high bonds under a rote schedule feels decidedly retro.
Judges and magistrate commissioners have chafed at the suddenly steep and inflexible requests, challenging prosecutors to explain their reliance on the schedule. Thibodeaux called one request “canned.”
Public defenders, meanwhile, claim the new bail requests fly in the face of Williams’ campaign pledge to wean the criminal justice system off of mass incarceration and cash bail. The pressure from prosecutors is already having an effect, they fear.
“We see bonds going up, even where the testimony on the record suggests the bond should go down,” said Derwyn Bunton, chief of the Orleans Public Defenders. “We see cases where complaining witnesses don’t want to go forward and that information is relayed on the record, and the bond goes up.”
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche, who has clashed with Williams, provided a copy of the bond schedule and other documents to the newspaper. Goyeneche characterized the push for high bonds as a political “180” for Williams.
“That is an indication of an overreaction, a correction to a policy that was flawed,” Goyeneche said of the new requests. “Having a schedule like that…indicates the people that are doing this aren’t being trained properly.”
Williams said his office declined to get involved in most initial bond settings because that’s the job of a commissioner or judge, and because he has “vowed to not have public fights with the judges like (my) predecessor on things that only the judge has the authority to do.”
Williams’ predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro, abandoned Magistrate Court for most first appearances toward the end of his tenure. Cannizzaro’s time came to a close as the court began to embrace bail bond reform, relying more on risk scores presented by court staff and less on argument.
Those scores generally track the risk of rearrest, city figures show. The percent of people rearrested after making bail has steadily dropped since 2019, according to data from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination.
Previously, Williams’ former first assistant, Bob White, told prosecutors that “we don’t really get involved in most bond settings,” but would “engage in the adversarial system” when it came to requests by defense attorneys for bond reductions.
Williams has ordered his prosecutors to request bonds of up to $100,000 for aggravated criminal damage to property, $250,000 for second-degree battery or aggravated burglary, $200,000 for simple robbery and $200,000 for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
For commercial surety bonds, the suspect must put up 12 percent of the set amount under state law.
The high bond ranges laid out in the new schedule “are consistent with the law and bond setting in other parishes,” Williams said in the statement.