Criminal Justice
 

Byron Williams would set goal of being one of Criminal District Court’s most efficient judges

Before he became executive counsel to the president at Southern University at New Orleans, attorney Byron C. Williams spent his career in the criminal justice system. But this is his first time running for public office.

Williams faces Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens in the race to replace outgoing Section G Judge Julian Parker.

Williams served as an assistant U.S attorney under Jim Letten and an assistant district attorney under Eddie Jordan. In 2008, he was appointed judge pro tempore at Criminal District Court, filling in after Calvin Johnson retired.

Williams worked as special counsel for the state Judiciary Commission, which investigates judicial misconduct.

Asked about Sens, he brought up nagging allegations of nepotism and impropriety against the Municipal Court judge.

Sens, in turn, pointed to Williams’ role as chief of the District Attorney’s screening division, which decided whether to prosecute cases or drop them. Jordan’s office was infamous for “701 releases,” in which arrestees are released from jail if the DA’s office doesn’t file charges within 60 days.

“It was like a turnstile,” Sens said.

Williams and Sens agree on what they would do if elected: clear up one of the court’s most backlogged dockets.

A recent report by the Metropolitan Crime Commission ranked Parker the third-lowest in efficiency among the criminal court’s 12 trial judges. Williams said he aims to rank in the top half after one year on the bench, and the top quarter after two.

“There have not been a lot of judges, I think, who have really concerned themselves with the number of cases they try, how efficient they are at trying those cases, the litany of continuances that are granted,” Williams said.

Some judges take more than nine months to handle a felony case, “and there are some judges that do it within 80 days,” Williams said. “So why can’t everyone do it within 80 days? I know I can do it.”

Williams said frequent delays in the court have eroded the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

“Victims get very upset when they have to get involved with the criminal justice system,” he said. “Witnesses are at their wit’s end. And jurors may not want to participate because of what they perceive as a very inefficient process.”

Moreover, he added, repeated delays keep people languishing in Orleans Parish Prison, which costs the city money.

The jail’s daily population averages more than 2,000, far above the 1,438 maximum in the new jail building under construction.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman has proposed a new jail building that would accommodate medical and mental health needs, required by the federal consent decree over the jail, as well as the general inmate population. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and Gusman negotiated that proposal two years ago, but since the consent decree was implemented last year, the Landrieu administration has come to oppose it.

Williams said that more effective case management in the court will reduce the jail population. He thinks it is possible that 1,438 beds can serve the city’s needs.

Among the initiatives the city has implemented to help reduce the jail population is the Pretrial Services program, run by the Vera Institute. The program screens arrestees for their risk of failing to appear in court. Judges can use that information to set bonds, including those that don’t require the defendant to put up any money.

The program has been criticized by the bail bond industry and Criminal District Court judges. In 2012 and 2013, Parker even ordered a moratorium on non-financial bonds for defendants in his court.

Williams said judges can effectively manage the program if they agree on consistent guidelines. If they do, he said, “the judges will have more information to be able to make a decision such that they can release the people who need to be released and keep the people who need to stay.”

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