By David Jones | WVUE | February 10, 2022
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – Following FOX 8 reporting that showed more than 1,500 accused criminals timed out of either jail or their bond obligations, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams said he owns the high number of releases and vowed to make changes.
Williams called a press conference Thursday afternoon to address “701 releases,” an article in State Criminal Court that gives defendants the right to a speedy trial. It sets a time limit on how long the district attorney must file charges. In most felony cases, if the D.A. fails to bring charges, the defendant is released from jail after two months behind bars.
If the defendant is out on bond, in most cases, they are released from their bond obligations after 150 days.
FOX 8 reporting revealed the number of 701 releases jumped from a range of 3 to 127 for the years 2016 to 2020, to 885 in 2021.
“After a deeper internal review, it is clear to me that there are areas that we can and absolutely need to make improvements,” Williams said. “As far as the 701 issue is concerned, we are owning it. We are fixing it. And we will share the results of our efforts to do so.”
Williams said the proposed fix begins with leadership changes within his office.
First Assistant District Attorney Bob White is out, demoted to serve as senior advisor and executive ADA, as well as interim leader of magistrate court.
Chief of Trials Ned McGowan will replace White as First ADA.
Paige Cline, who served as Chief of Screening, was also demoted.
“The former head of screening under Mr. Williams’ administration had been in that position and been a prosecutor for 20 years. She supervised his predecessor’s screening division,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “There weren’t these issues when she was in charge during the prior administration.”
The MCC released its own report on 701 releases, going case by case, studying each docket, to produce the real number. It found the number of 701 releases in 2021 was 1,524.
“That’s a stunning failure of the district attorney’s office to do their most fundamental task, and that is to screen arrest reports that are submitted to them by the district or by the police department,” Goyeneche said.
Williams took issue with Goyeneche’s report on Thursday, emphasizing the need to differentiate between 701 releases of accused criminals in custody versus accused criminals who made bail.
“Any time there is a document or a statement saying these are the 701 releases for the year, but it doesn’t distinguish between a release of a bond obligation versus a release from custody onto the streets, that is misleading,” Williams said.
But Goyeneche said the report does just that.
On the fifth page of the report, the releases of accused offenders currently in custody versus those not in custody is detailed.
“We distinguish that, we made that part of our report, we shared that report with him,” Goyeneche said.
Williams also addressed the need for more lawyers and DNA analysts, urging the city council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell to find funding.
The shake up at Williams’ office also includes the assignment and reassignment of three ADA screeners, as well as the addition of Karen Avery to head a unit overseeing domestic violence cases.
Williams has set a goal of an average of five days to screen a case and decide whether to bring forward charges. He acknowledged his office has a long way to go to meet that average, but committed to working toward the goal.