By Newell Normand | WWL Radio | January 22, 2021


District Attorney Jason Williams has taken office in New Orleans and is already making changes to the city’s criminal justice system. Rafael Goyeneche from the Metropolitan Crime Commission joined Newell Friday morning to discuss what’s new, and what’s staying the same as the city grapples with a brutal crime wave.

“NPR interviewed Jason Williams and the questioner asked him about this broader movement to shift away from an over-reliance on prosecution,” Newell began. “And away from what a lot of people see as a racially based system, one that’s biased against the poor, and the DA’s response was – tes, absolutely. What do they mean by an over-reliance of prosecution? I worked in the criminal justice system for 40 years and I thought that our role was to go out and catch the bad guys, the criminals, and present a case to the district attorney to be successfully prosecuted. Where did this all go wrong?”

“I can’t answer that,” Goyenche said. “You’ll have to get to someone more intelligent than me on that!”

“I just… I can’t,” Newell sighed. “Williams goes on to say, no one knows the racial disparities and gender disparities that exist in terms of who’s prosecuted and who’s not. So first and foremost, we want to set up a host of public-facing dashboards that provide a baseline of what exists under this last administration. So then people can see that these reform efforts are not just reform for reform sake, but actually are delivering real public safety benefits. Now, I hear that a lot about these real public safety benefits, but I’ve not seen the definition of it. Since when do police pick and choose the gender and the race of the offender that they’re arresting when 99.9% of their arrests are reactive? Where someone describes an individual, or there’s someone caught in the act?”

“Exactly. Exactly,” Goyeneche agreed. “I had someone from the media pose that question to me yesterday evening. I pointed out what you pointed out. I said before we rush to say that there’s some type of racial agenda, if the only data that you’re looking at is the race and gender of the offender – does that give you a complete picture? Because if there is a racial bias, shouldn’t you also look at the race and gender of the victims that are calling the police and reporting the crime to them? And what about the race and gender of the witnesses that may be involved in that? And so I think the focus is just on a selective data point that doesn’t necessarily dispositively really prove anything.”

Goyeneche continued: “If you’re going to make an assumption or conclusion that the system is somehow racially biased, you need to also look at the other side of the equation – the people that are reporting the crime, the victims of crime and what their race is. And as you pointed out, the overwhelming majority of police arrests result from responding to calls for service. And if they speak to somebody, a victim, a witness, and they give them a description or identify the perpetrator, it’s the police department’s responsibility to arrest that individual if there is probable cause for that arrest. I don’t agree with some of the conclusions that are being made.”

“It would seem to me that one thing you would also break out on these dashboards is whether or not there’s any forensic evidence,” Newell said. “For example, if there’s DNA, if there’s a fingerprint, if there’s a similar blood types, if there’s a shoe print or that dreaded digital evidence, a photograph that’s taken from a security camera, God forbid we use facial recognition… But to just talk about these things globally, in a general sense … what the hell are they talking about?”
“I think about a lot of the misinformation that’s out there,” came the answer. “There’s been a lot of discussion and teeth gnashing about some of the charges for which people are serving time in the state penitentiary. So as you know, 98% or so of the cases that are resolved are resolved with plea bargains. And some of the advocates for reforms are merely looking at the offense for which somebody pled guilty to and are serving time in the penitentiary. And it’s very, very hard to get sent to the penitentiary for a non-violent property offense or a drug possession offense. So if people are serving time for those types of lower level felonies, you can pretty much be assured that there was a plea, and that was pursuant to a negotiated reduction in charges. And if they’re in jail for a nonviolent offense, it’s a certainty that they have other felonies convictions in their background, some of which are going to be crimes of violence.”