By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Big hitters in the New Orleans criminal-justice world spoke this morning in favor of four ordinances aimed at reducing the number of people arrested for minor crimes.

Instead of an arrest on a state charge, offenders could get a ticket ordering them to municipal court on four specific crimes:

  • * Simple possession of marijuana
  • * Interfering with a law enforcement investigation
  • * Flight from an officer
  • * Prostitution

The City Attorney’s Office will prosecute the crimes instead of the District Attorney’s Office, if the ordinances go through when City Council considers them Dec. 16.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry bristled at the suggestion that issuing a summons for marijuana possession, in particular, means council is “downgrading” the offense.

“I think it’s very important that this information be reported correctly to the public, so that we are giving our citizens correct and factual information, rather than perhaps creating fear that has no reason to exist and is not appropriate,” Guidry said.

Instead, she said council was simply avoiding putting people in jail before they have been convicted.

About 2,500 people a year are jailed in New Orleans for simple marijuana possession, according to the Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans, and in theory, all of them could be given summonses as a result of the new municipal ordinances. The organization has been working with city officials to bring about these changes.

“Throwing people in jail before they are convicted is not really part of the charge. That’s just a matter of procedure that we’ve had until now,” Guidry said. “And both state law and now, municipal law will allow that procedure not to be used.”

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said there were more than 1,000 marijuana cases on the Criminal District Court docket when he took office, and that they were not moving through the system as quickly as they should.

Cannizzaro’s office first came up with the idea of shifting the charges to Municipal Court to give Criminal District Court judges more time to focus on dangerous and violent offenders, he said. But that did not mean being soft on crime.

“We are not in any way legalizing marijuana in the city of New Orleans, and we are not in any way decriminalizing it,” Cannizzaro said.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee the changes would bring the department into line with best practices around the country, letting the department hold people accountable without taking them to jail if it’s not necessary.

“It is smart on crime. It’s not soft on crime. It gives us the opportunity to apply the appropriate response,” Serpas said. “It’s a very good solution. It’s a rational solution, and we don’t end up spending a lot of time in the booking process.”

The city’s police are already issuing summonses in 61 percent of non-domestic violence, non-public intoxication municipal cases. That’s up from 41 percent in October 2009, according to statistics compiled by the Vera Institute.

Next, the Criminal Justice Committee is set to look at building a sobriety center to be operated by Odyssey House in a new location on North Claiborne Avenue and St. Ann Street, in the former Basin Street Lounge.

The idea of the sobriety center is to avoid the need to throw drunks in jail.

Guidry has sought research from the Vera Institute on the relative risk of harm for an arrestee being dropped off at the jail versus a sobriety center. But the idea is still a work in progress, she said.

Vera hopes to get money from the state to run the center, while Guidry said FEMA might pay for the sobering center with money left over from rebuilding the city’s jail.