Criminal Justice

Committee to reconsider downgrading some crimes

The City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee today delayed a vote on downgrading certain misdemeanors to municipal court offenses because of concerns expressed by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

The group also discussed several other initiatives aimed at reducing the amount of jail and court time used for minor offenses.

Addressing the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee meeting are District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans Director Jon Wool, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, and New Orleans Police Department Deputy Superintendent Kirk Bouyelas. Photo by Matt Davis

The committee agenda showed that it was set to vote this morning on five ordinances aimed at moving low-level offenders more quickly through the system to save money, and make room for prosecutors to focus on the most violent offenders.

But Cannizzaro and other criminal justice officials hope to resolve his concerns in private and plan to bring the ordinances back to a committee meeting Nov. 10 for a vote.

The ordinances would shift responsibility for prosecuting certain crimes away from Cannizzaro’s office, to City Attorney Nannette Jolivette Brown. Brown’s office would then prosecute the following offenses in Municipal Court:

*Interfering with a law enforcement investigation,

*flight from an officer,

*simple possession of marijuana,

*possession of controlled dangerous substances in the presence of a minor, and

*crimes against nature by solicitation.

The ordinance on possession of controlled substances in the presence of a minor was never presented to council this morning, but here’s a draft version.

Cannizzaro was happy to vote on three of the five ordinances this morning, he told the committee, but had concerns about two, although he was reluctant to go into details.

“Just in keeping with the discussions, I’d prefer to wait and not publicly air that,” Cannizzaro told our partners at Fox8 News, when asked for specifics about his concerns.

While no one wanted to speak publicly about the matter, the problems arose with the ordinances on possession of controlled dangerous substances in the presence of a minor, and crimes against nature by solicitation, The Lens has learned.

Under jeopardy laws, a defendant cannot be tried for the same crime twice, and Cannizzaro wants to make sure his office can continue to prosecute crack possession and distribution in criminal court, without a defendant being tried first on a municipal charge. It’s understood that he also has concerns about relying on the state’s crimes against nature for compensation statute to prosecute prostitution, and would prefer to see an amendment of City Code.

The concerns could be resolved at a private meeting of the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance on Tuesday. The group was convened by the Vera Institute of Justice and includes Cannizzaro, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office, the New Orleans Police Department, and it meets at Municipal Court.

“That’s where we actually point our fingers, cuss each other out, and then we come to council, with the consensus legislative program. So that’s how it works, and it’s, to this point, been working very well for all of us,” Bunton said.

“It may seem to the public that everyone’s been drinking everyone else’s Kool-Aid here,” said Council member Susan Guidry, who co-chairs the committee. “ But I know that you’ve, as you say, been hashing these things out for a long time, over the last two years, and the result is that everyone’s coming to consensus, and it’s very exciting. It’s going to be such a benefit to the public because people won’t be thrown in jail and lose their jobs for small offenses.”

The committee heard about several other initiatives this morning, which are being discussed by the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance, and are aimed at reducing the amount of jail and court time for minor offenses:

*A state misdemeanor initiative has reduced the average time served in jail on non-violent misdemeanor offenses from 10.5 days to two days, with 78 percent of cases being disposed of in two days, said Jon Wool, director of the Vera Institute of New Orleans.

*Police are also more likely to issue summonses on non-domestic violence municipal cases, compared to a year ago. Summonses are now being issued 50 percent of the time in such cases, up from 32 percent a year ago, Wool said. Again, his office produced a report.

“If we can find ways to hold people accountable and not take them to the lockup, then we support that,” said Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who left for a police awards ceremony after opening the meeting with some brief remarks.

*The group also is continuing to develop the concept of a public intoxication center, as an alternative to jail. The center would likely combine some form of criminal sanction with detoxification services, and could benefit from the injection of state dollars for rehabilitation. In the meantime, the alliance has been analyzing public intoxication arrests.

*Reclassifying most municipal offenses into non-criminal, civil infractions, in tandem with a statewide effort by the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Committee. This is still in the development stage.

•*Changing the way municipal court, and potentially other city courts, are financed.

“We’re funding a system on the backs of the most vulnerable, and it creates obstacles to reform when you worry at every step about losing revenues,” Wool said. “We should incentivize good practices, not put up roadblocks.”

This idea is still in the development stage, he said.

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