By Matt Sledge | | October 13, 2021

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams is rejecting more battery, assault and robbery charges than his predecessor, leading to a sharp decline in the share of violent felony arrests that are prosecuted, a watchdog group said Wednesday.

The business-aligned Metropolitan Crime Commission claims in a report that Williams, a progressive elected on a platform of reversing mass incarceration while fighting violent crime, is endangering public safety. Williams’ office shot back with a statement that accuses the group of bad-faith, politically motivated attacks on the newly installed district attorney.

Williams’ office says it will soon release its own data. It has partnered with a national group hoping to create new yardsticks for prosecutors like racial and ethnic disparities, victim outreach and minimizing unnecessary punitiveness.

The Metropolitan Crime Commission report examines cases at two points in the legal process: the moment at which prosecutors decide to accept or reject arrests brought to them by police for prosecution, and the moment at which cases close. The report looks only at incidents reported to police that result in arrests.

Overall, former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro accepted 67% of violent felony arrests for prosecution in 2019 and 75% in 2020, the group said. That number dropped to 54% of such arrests during Williams’ first eight months since his Jan. 11 inauguration, the report says.

Some categories like homicides, attempted murders and sex crimes saw a relatively small decrease. The bulk of the change was driven by assault and battery arrests, where the refusal rate doubled from 27% in 2020 to 54% this year, and robbery arrests, where the rate more than doubled, jumping from 21% to 46%.

The report also looked at case dispositions. The number of violent felony charges that were dismissed by the District Attorney’s Office, after initially being accepted for prosecution, rose from 16% and 17% of cases in 2019 and 2020 under Cannizzaro, to 54% of such cases over William’s first eight months, the report said.

That includes homicides, where case dismissals rose from 9% last year to 40% this year, and sex crimes, where dismissals rose from 10% last year to 48% this year. Many of those cases were holdovers from Cannizzaro’s tenure.

Earlier this year, Williams’ office released data on his first two months, detailing the hundreds of cases the district attorney dismissed to clear a court backlog tied to the pandemic. At the time, Williams had yet to dismiss any charges carrying a life sentence, like murder or first-degree rape.

Since then, the number of dismissals in those more serious cases have ticked up. The Metropolitan Crime Commission’s president and CEO, Rafael Goyeneche, says Williams has failed so far to find the right balance between pursuing change and penalizing violent crime.

“Progressivism and public safety are not mutually exclusive concepts,” he said. “You can be progressive and still not compromise public safety. We’re in the midst right now of a violent crime surge in the city, and the city is less safe today in part because of some of the policies of the District Attorney’s Office.”

Goyeneche said the District Attorney’s Office should improve its communication with police on individual cases.

The report doesn’t provide comparable data for other prosecutors around the state. Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he wasn’t aware of statewide data.

During the election, Williams promised to be pickier about which cases he accepted, rejecting those produced by shoddy police work or racial profiling.

Still, Williams has always said that he will pursue serious cases like murders when appropriate. He’s argued that refusing more low-level cases will allow him to put a “laser focus” on violent crime.

Williams’s first assistant, Bob White, said in a statement that the crime group’s data was “cherry-picked,” but he didn’t dispute specific details or provide the office’s own data. He did find fault with the group and Goyeneche himself, a longtime fixture in local debates over criminal justice. White noted that in June, Goyeneche falsely accused prosecutors of failing to object to a bond reduction for a man who is accused of later killing a 7th Ward woman outside her home. Goyeneche later apologized.

In a statement, White said that over the past half-century, the Metropolitan Crime Commission has “fostered” policies that “have led to this city becoming the incarceration capital of the world and the city with the most exonerations of incarcerated persons, with a concurrent and steady decrease in public safety. We are striving to reverse these trends.”

Goyeneche started his career as a prosecutor under former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., whose long tenure has come under increasing scrutiny since his retirement.

Goyeneche said his group has regularly released reports on local prosecutors and police, and this one was no different.

The District Attorney’s Office said it received the report shortly after noon Monday. Meanwhile, the crime commission hasn’t released the underlying data for its report, the office said.

However, aside from a single data set released 68 days into Williams’ administration, his office has fallen short on pledges to improve transparency around charging and case resolution outcomes.

With no explanation, the office has rejected public records requests from this newspaper for case-specific information on charges dismissed or resolved through plea deals.

White said more data is coming soon. He said the office has partnered with “credible and independent” groups like the national Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project, the Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans, Loyola University and AH Datalytics to make more information available online.

“Our office is committed to directly providing ALL the people of New Orleans with data and statistics about its work and performance so that the people of this city can make up their own minds about the work of the office and not have Mr. Goyeneche tell them what to think,” White said.