view full story- Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro announces new unit to ensure fair convictions
In an unusual partnership, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced plans Tuesday to start a new conviction integrity unit in his office to be run with the Innocence Project, a legal defense group that investigates wrongful convictions.
In a city that has seen several decades-old murder and rape convictions overturned in recent years, Cannizzaro said the initiative would underscore his dedication to fairness for both victims and defendants. He did not describe the proposal in detail, which he said has been six months in the making. Funding remains in the works, he said.
"There is nothing more detrimental to the reputation and health of a criminal justice system than intentional misconduct by law enforcement agencies," Cannizzaro said in his annual "State of the Criminal Justice System" address at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward.
The speech came the night before the opening of the qualifying period for the November elections for several positions, including those of all Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges and the district attorney. One challenger has announced. Lionel "Lon" Burns, a criminal defense attorney, said Tuesday that he would run to unseat Cannizzaro.
Cannizzaro touted reforms he pushed since taking office in 2008, like establishing policies to prevent defendants from being let out of jail because prosecutors had missed the legally mandated deadline to file charges. He also said increased cooperation with the New Orleans Police Department and federal agencies has led to higher conviction rates for gun and violent crimes.
"I can report to the citizens of New Orleans that the criminal justice system is more robust, more aggressive, more modern and -- most importantly -- fairer than its predecessor, and is perhaps the strongest criminal justice system in the modern era of this city," Cannizzaro said.
The city's Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said in an email that he agreed the system has improved, but argued that "serious problems persist." He said the city's "user-pay" system to fund the Orleans Public Defenders Office is unreliable and inadequate, resulting in "dangerously high caseloads in some courts, raising the risk of unfair and erroneous outcomes," as well as undermining efficiency.
The room was packed with politicians and law-enforcement leaders, including U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, federal ATF Special Agent In Charge Philip Durham and Interim New Orleans Police Superintendent Lt. Michael Harrison.
Cannizzaro "has had a very, very, very close relationship with the New Orleans Police Department," Landrieu told the crowd, adding that last year, the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that felony conviction rates were at their highest since 1999.
City Councilman Jason Williams, a longtime criminal defense attorney, said he believed the district attorney's proposed conviction integrity unit would "change the entire dynamic of our criminal justice system."
"When the wrong person goes to jail, it means the perpetrator is left on our streets to offend and reoffend again," he told the audience.
Among the accomplishments the district attorney emphasized in his speech:
Cannizzaro said he renewed a focus on juvenile delinquency proceedings, through improving the juvenile diversion program for non-violent juveniles to steer them away from crime, while transferring violent offenders to the adult system.
He said he quadrupled the size of his "progressive" diversion program, which allows nonviolent defendants to avoid felony convictions. They receive assistance from counselors in finding a job, education, training and substance abuse counseling. The recidivism rate for participants is less than 5 percent, he said, compared to 50 percent for people leaving the Department of Corrections.
He said his office now provides support to 10 times more victims and witnesses than his predecessors.
In a state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, local prosecutors are exploring new programs to give some defendants opportunities to avoid jail or prison, while still ensuring that those who require prison time receive it.
District attorneys from Terrebonne, Lafourche and other jurisdictions along with some of their top staff members attended a weeklong conference in Pensacola last month where nationally recognized experts shared their ideas, and prosecutors focused on what has worked and what has not in their jurisdictions.
“We talked about a resurgence in diversion programs nationally,” said Kevin Guidry, operations administrator for Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. Guidry is president of Professionals In Pre-Trial Services, a national consortium of justice system administrators interested in developing and maintaining diversion programs. Guidry skippered this year’s conference, the 34th in the group’s history.
With 893 out of every 100,000 Louisiana residents in state or federal lock-ups, Louisiana holds the highest state incarceration rank per capita. Attempts for passage of de-criminalization measures in the state Legislature have met mixed responses. Some politicians’ fear being branded as “soft on crime.”
Data and the practices generating them discussed at the program, attendees said, gave clear indications that pre-trial alternatives can lower not just the cold number of people ending up behind bars, but cut down drastically on recidivism. Such options are relatively easy for Louisiana prosecutors to put in place. The state constitution allows the state’s prosecutors the option, essentially, of prosecuting whom they choose, when they choose and how they choose with some few exceptions. That unique provision gives Louisiana district attorneys tremendous power, but also generous opportunities for discretion.
Lafourche Parish District Attorney Camille Morvant II attended this year’s conference for the first time. It provided affirmation, he said, for directions his office has already taken. “Jail is not the answer for all the people we deal with as district attorneys,” Morvant said. “We use diversion as a tool.” Morvant said a key element of his administration has traditionally been drawing the line between career criminals and one-time offenders who have committed low-level crimes.
Morvant’s intervention program is used primarily for misdemeanors and in some rare instances for low-grade felonies. Assistants determine which pending cases involve good candidates, in most cases first-time offenders. The candidate’s court date is adjourned for 90 days, which is enough time for him or her to be registered into the program and meet initial participation requirements.
If all goes well, the second court date is adjourned indefinitely, and once the period of probation is completed, with costs, fines restitution or other requirements met, the case is dismissed. Requirements can include attendance at 12-step meetings, anger management courses and other proactive measures.
The benefit for the defendant is primarily that there is no record left behind, as well as no incarceration if the rules are followed. The benefit for society, prosecutors say, is no incarceration if the rules are followed, and the ability to keep a person who had a lapse in judgment employed and viable.
Prosecutors say more options for dealing with offenders exist than ever before. But there are limitations to what can be done.
One of the biggest is money. Most criminal defendants, Morvant notes, are at the lower end of the economic ladder. Fines and fees already put a dent into their budgets. Paying for more elaborate diversion options can make justice outcome options untenable for many. Morvant notes that his own office only has so much money to go around. But he is exploring with his staff what more can be done.
In Terrebonne Parish, one of the greater benefits has been licensing of the District Attorney’s Office itself as a substance abuse treatment provider through the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. That means specially trained in-house employees can handle outpatient treatment programs. Guidry is looking forward to his office and others having diversion personnel certified as diversion specialists. It will provide more options for grants and funding, he said, as well give a better level of service to residents.
While there is necessarily a punitive aspect to diversion programs, Guidry said, a vital component is the educational aspect. Boating safety offenders can take a course to correct their knowledge base; traffic offenders can take safe driving course. The potential for other options, Guidry said, is only limited by imagination and practicality.
He and other prosecutors note that diversion should not be confused with drug courts or DWI courts, which serve a different purpose. Drug court – Lafourche has one as well – takes someone whose offense is somehow related to drug use and perhaps the need to fuel a habit, through acts such as theft, and permit the person to enter a guilty plea. Rather than being sentenced to time, the offender has an opportunity to be placed under the jurisdiction of drug court and perform the tasks that are required of them to graduate from that program. If the person fails through non-attendance or other issues such as a new arrest, they are sentenced to the time they already would have served had they never entered drug court.
As he continues his work for Waitz, Guidry is also busy with planning next year’s conference, to give prosecutors, judges and others as full a toolkit as possible to work with trending justice issues relating to diversion. This year’s conference included talks on “Motivational Interviewing,” coping with the increased illicit use of prescription drugs, which has been called the “new crack cocaine” and how to best handle drugged drivers.
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association has announced that District Attorney David W. Burton has been elected President of the Association. Mr. Burton is District Attorney in the Thirty-sixth Judicial District of Louisiana in Beauregard Parish. He has previously served as LDAA President and as the Past President representative. Mr. Burton has the honor of being the first former President to serve in that capacity again. He also serves on the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, as Chairman of the LDAA Juvenile Justice Task Force, and as the LDAA representative on the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJIC).
Also elected were:
First Vice President - Hillar C. Moore III, District Attorney (19th J.D., Baton Rouge)
Second Vice President - Christopher Bowman, Assistant District Attorney (Orleans Parish, New Orleans) Board Members - James C. Downs, District Attorney (9th J.D., Alexandria)
Board Members - Richard Z. Johnson, Jr., District Attorney (42nd J.D., Mansfield)
Board Members - S. Andrew “Andy” Shealy, First Assistant District Attorney (3rd J.D., Ruston)
Board Members - H. Todd Nesom, District Attorney (33rd J.D., Oberlin)
Board Members - Bradley R. Burget, District Attorney (7th J.D., Vidalia)
Board Members - J. Reed Walters, District Attorney (28th J.D., Jena)
Board Members - Charles J. Ballay, District Attorney (25th J.D., Belle Chasse)
Board Members - Ricky Babin, District Attorney (23rd J.D., Donaldsonville)
Board Members - Charles A. Riddle III, District Attorney (12th J.D., Marksville)
Board Members - Charles R. Scott, District Attorney (1st J.D., Shreveport)
Board Members - Dale Lee, Assistant District Attorney (19th J.D., Baton Rouge)
Board Members - Mark Pitre, District Attorney Investigator (32nd J.D., Houma)
Board Members - Paul D. Connick, Jr., District Attorney (24th J.D., Gretna)
The new officers begin their terms on August 15, 2014.
The Association is composed of District Attorneys, Assistant District Attorneys, and District Attorney Investigators in the State of Louisiana. It provides training and legal services for prosecutors across the State. The Association also develops and promotes legislation to strengthen the criminal justice system. Its members are available for testimony before legislative committees.