Saturday, April 29, 2017

Who does and doesn't trust our criminal justice system

Of all the things that one could say about Orleans and Jefferson Parish District Attorneys and their fake subpoena tactics this week, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry got to the point most directly.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office acknowledged Thursday that it, too, has sent fake subpoenas to reluctant witnesses to get them to talk to prosecutors. The practice will stop immediately, the office said in a written statement.

The admission comes a day after the Orleans Parish DA’s office abruptly announced it would end the practice after The Lens informed the office that it was about to publish a story reporting that legal experts said the practice is unethical, if not illegal.

Criticism of the practice in New Orleans mounted Thursday. Two City Council members said the fake subpoenas, as well as other aggressive tactics by the DA’s office, probably have eroded the public’s faith in the criminal justice system.

No wonder people in our community don’t trust our criminal justice system,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said at a meeting.
The fake subpoenas are bad. But they're really just the tip of the iceberg as The Lens also pointed out this week with regard to Cannizzaro's activities
Cannizzaro’s office has been accused of overly aggressive tactics. Prosecutors frequently use the state’s habitual offender law to secure long sentences, even for nonviolent crimes. They have charged witnesses with perjury if they recant their testimony.

And earlier this month, the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA found several cases in which the DA’s office obtained arrest warrants for victims of crimes because they did not cooperate with prosecutors.

New Orleans City Councilman and defense attorney Jason Williams said the use of fake witness subpoenas fits into a pattern of overzealous prosecution.

“I can only imagine how dangerous this could potentially be,” he said. “If older assistant district attorneys are encouraging younger, less experienced [assistant district attorneys] to do this, it creates a culture.”
That "culture" of prosecutorial licentiousness runs deep in Louisiana. And it is enabled by a political culture too often content to look the other way. The DAs and Sheriffs are powerful people. They're currently in Baton Rouge lobbying against a set of modest, humane, and broadly supported sentencing and parole reforms meant to reduce the state's obscenely bloated prison population.  They haven't succeeded quite yet but give it time. DAs and Sheriffs are dangerous people.

We mean that literally. Some recent high profile examples include these Iberia Parish beatings, the  as yet unsolved murders in Jennings. Here, also from The Lens is an op-ed by William Barnwell about the prisoner abuse in Louisiana via the practice of solitary confinement. Notice who he singles out.
Popular support for the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to sentencing has begun to lose ground nationally among both conservatives and liberals. Even Louisiana, appalled  by both the inequity (close to 80 percent of the people we incarcerate are African American) and ineffectiveness of mass incarceration — not to mention spiraling costs — has begun to inch toward reform. But the problem is compounded by hardened district attorneys who seek maximum punishments and by parish sheriffs who lobby to keep their jails full because their budgets depend on the income from the state for each jailed person.
"It's no wonder people in our community don't trust our criminal justice system." The power to protect and serve the public is habitually abused to terrorize the defenseless while the power to prosecute or just as importantly not to prosecute is abused in ways that protect the establishment. Next week sometime we're expecting an announcement that there will be no civil rights prosecutions in the murder of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police. But officials are being extra careful about how and when they make that announcement because they are worried about the tension that arises in a community when nobody trusts the criminal justice system.

The proposed reforms in the legislature are a nice start should they pass. And, despite its problems and imperfections, the NOPD consent decree has probably been of at least some help. But if we're serious about addressing this head on, we should recognize that the abuses which lead to a lack of trust in the criminal justice system are bound to repeat as long as the classes who benefit from it maintain political power.  Which means, once again, in order to fix the policies, we have to first go out and do the politics.

Today there is an election for Civil District Court.  That may seem disconnected from the criminal justice stuff above but it really isn't. Politics is always about more than just the one office at stake in any election.  Instead it is about building and testing the strength of coalitions.  Every election is an opportunity to see which side can maintain power and influence. This race in particular is a fairly strong litmus test in that regard. It's a citywide race coming just a few months ahead of a major municipal election. And it could provide an early read on some of the dynamics that will be in play then.
Saturday's runoff for a seat on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court bench will be decided along racial lines, if last month's primary results offer a clue.

The battle is sketched in black and white as attorneys Rachael Johnson, 40, and Suzanne "Suzy" Montero, 53, make their final push for votes, with a slender turnout expected for the only contest on the Orleans Parish ballot.

Montero, who is white, won nearly 88 percent of the white vote and just 2 percent of the black vote on her way to claiming a spot in the runoff, according to an analysis by University of New Orleans political science professor Ed Chervenak.

Johnson, who is black, came in 600 votes behind Montero while taking 80 percent of the black vote and 7 percent of the white vote.

Montero won 45 percent of the overall vote, to 43 percent for Johnson. Attorney Marie Williams, who is black, trailed with 11 percent, mostly from heavily black precincts.

"When you have a biracial election, a very low-stimulus election where we don't have a lot of information about the candidates and their qualifications, people tend to fall back on shortcuts like race," Chervenak said.
Now, Chervenak is not being entirely honest here.  He might mean to say the average voter may not have followed the news very closely. But anyone who has will have all of the information we  (his word) have about the candidates, which is plenty. Here is a the usually excellent Antigravity election guide to this race. There's a few more points one could add. And I'm disappointed that they end on a no recommendation. But besides that it's a quite good sampling of the information we all have.  But let's take at face value that we do have a low profile but citywide election between a "Who is White" and a "Who is Black."  That should tell aspiring mayoral candidates a little bit about the relative strengths of each block.

That isn't all we'll be watching, of course. Beyond just race, we're looking at how the influence of specific interests and individuals can be brought to bear in 2017. For example the Johnson campaign is being handled by powerhouse politico Karen Carvin while Montero's is supported by PR work from Cheron Brylski. Both of those names will be all over the fall elections.  Montero seems to have had a bit more money to play with. She's certainly had more ads flying around TV and social media sites. But where this really gets interesting is where the endorsements start to line up.  Here is a quick list of people whose names have appeared on Montero's fliers and ads over the past few weeks.

Charles Foti
Jackie Clarkson
Peggy Wilson
Harry Connick Sr.
Suzanne Haik-Terrell

And, of course, these two beloved friends of the people.

Leon and Stacy heart Suzy

What we have here is a fine sampling of the small section of our community who actually likes the criminal justice system just fine the way it is. Before you go vote today you may wish to think about whether you care to see such people emboldened by the results of a citywide contest. Today's election doesn't directly have a lot to do with that issue. In a vacuum it's about which one of these equally qualified individuals could be a Civil Court judge. They both could. That's why Antigravity doesn't endorse either.  But politics doesn't happen in a vacuum and a single office alone isn't really the point. It never is.

No comments: