Louisiana law gives the district attorney sole authority to decide who will be prosecuted for crimes in his jurisdiction and only the district attorney decides the charge. The Orleans Parish DA alone is responsible for this and neither the mayor, the council nor the Metropolitan Crime Commission has standing to suggest otherwise. So those who want to suggest alternative policies for the DA should back off and let the DA do his job.That's Harry Connick writing in to the Advocate today to cheer on Leon Cannizzaro, for some reason. It might have something to do with these criticisms of Cannizzaro's aggressive and out-dated prosecutorial practices.
Cannizzaro's office also leads the state in invoking the state's habitual-offender law, sending away far more inmates under the statute than any other DA. That law allows prosecutors almost complete discretion to ratchet up prison terms based on a defendant's prior convictions, going up to 20 years to life on a fourth felony offense.Leon locks 'em all up. It's precisely these sorts of policies that have come under fire in recent years for having spurred our national mass incarceration nightmare. The U.S. locks up more people than any other country. Louisiana locks up more than any other state. The effects of this cruelty have been utterly devastating.
New Orleans, with less than 10 percent of the state's population, now accounts for 29 percent of the 2,645 state inmates who are serving 20 years after being sentenced under the repeat-offender law, the data show.
Cannizzaro's frequent use of that law raises the stakes for many defendants facing allegations from a DA's Office that accepts criminal charges against 85 percent of felony arrestees, on average.
That pace of prosecution, which has drawn pointed criticism from the City Council, far exceeds the rates of Cannizzaro's predecessors, former DAs Harry Connick and Eddie Jordan.
In some ways, we're beginning to come to grips with it. For example, many observers are expecting to see some positive movement on criminal justice reform in the coming legislative session. The New Orleans City Council has taken steps in the past year to reduce the number of people arrested for minor non-violent offenses. Here is Councilman Jason Williams (and perhaps future DA candidate) knocking Cannizzaro's use of the habitual-offender law.
Williams argued that the DA's reliance on the habitual-offender law is "an abuse" and a relic of a failed war on drugs.Cannizzaro's response in that article is basically, "Yeah, well Connick did it way more," which is pretty funny and may also explain why Harry has rushed in to defend him. There's also the matter of Robert Jones whose wrongful conviction was overturned (after 23 years) because attorneys were finally able to show a "clear pattern" of misconduct and evidence suppression existed while Connick was in office. Cannizzaro seriously considered re-trying Jones before reluctantly backing off. No doubt Connick has this in mind when he tells us we should "let the DA do his job."
"Doing that today is flying in the face of a smarter criminal justice system," Williams argued. "A lot of these felony convictions are low-level drug abusers who are getting double-digit (prison terms). We're not any safer than we were. By and large, too many people that none of us are scared of are getting large prison terms."
James Gill's commentary on the Jones case said of Connick, "He has gone down in history as the man who introduced the concept of prosecutorial misconduct to the masses." Cannizzaro must be exceedingly proud to have garnered his endorsement.