Criminal Justice Reform Takes Center Stage in New Orleans DA Race

In the race for Orleans Parish District Attorney (DA), criminal justice reform has taken center stage as the defining issue. Throughout his 42-year career, current DA Leon Cannizzaro has taken a tough-on-crime stance, first as a criminal court judge, then an appeals court judge, and finally in his two terms as DA.

Over his time as lead prosecutor, Cannizzaro became known for intimidating victims and witnesses through the use of material witness warrants and fake subpoenas. In addition, he aggressively pursued new cases against defendants who had been exonerated following conviction.

“New Orleans has a history of locking folks up,” says New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson. “And that hasn’t made our community safer. So, when looking at what is true public safety, you want progressive prosecutors because they’re embracing something more fair and more safe and effective.”

“‘Lock ’em up and throw away the key’ hasn’t worked anyplace,” says Retired Judge Calvin Johnson. “If we really want to do something proactively about crime, then you have to think about it differently, and they have to use all of the resources we have both in the justice system, but also in society itself to deal with it.”

Both Hutson and Johnson are members of the People’s DA Coalition, which represents more than thirty organizations across New Orleans including criminal justice system professionals, formerly incarcerated citizens, crime survivors, wrongfully convicted, and families of incarcerated citizens. The Coalition is working to ensure the election of a reform DA.

At a recent candidate forum hosted by the Coalition, three candidates for Orleans Parish DA pledged to break from Cannizzaro’s policies. City Council President Jason Williams, ret. Judge Keva Landrum and Judge Arthur Hunter have all said they will work to end wrongful convictions and won’t object to new trials for around 300 people who were convicted by split juries in Orleans Parish but weren’t released following an April U.S Supreme Court decision ruling non-unanimous jury convictions unconstitutional. A fourth candidate, Ret. Judge Morris Reed didn’t appear at the forum.

“We have to reckon with the legacy of racism and these Jim Crow-era policies and practices that have gone on for far too long,” said Williams.

All three candidates agreed that they will reserve pretrial jail time for only violent or serious offenses, and won’t use habitual offender laws to pursue more aggressive sentencing options. In addition, the three candidates agreed they won’t bring criminal charges against New Orleans sex workers.

“The District Attorney says who, when, where, and how to prosecute,” Johnson says. That is why the DA race is so important in terms of criminal justice reform. According to Johnson, it isn’t the police or the judges who are the key to reforming the system, it is the prosecutors and the DA who serve as the lynchpin of reform.

Having a district attorney that stresses fair and consitutional behavior is a big part preventing police misconduct as well, according to Hutson. In her 16 years in police oversight, she has seen DA’s repeatedly turn a blind eye to unconsitutional policing. “We can see that officers around the country aren’t really afraid of misconduct and aren’t afraid they’re going to get charged for the most part,” Hutson says. “The district attorney has the power to decide whether to investigate and prosecute their miscounduct and especially their everyday violence – they used to call them ‘uses of force,’ but I’m calling them uses of violence now.”

You can view the entire People’s DA Coalition Candidate Forum here.

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