Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Wednesday defended his  decision last year to shift the prosecution of misdemeanor charges from criminal to municipal court, saying it has allowed his office to focus on more serious cases.

That move has created budgetary concerns for Councilwoman Susan Guidry, a co-chairwoman of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras, whose colleagues might be expected to benefit from the shift, instead amplified Guidry’s concerns Wednesday during a joint meeting of the council’s Criminal Justice and Budget committees.

Guidry asked why money hasn’t been moved to Municipal Court, along with the greater caseload.

Buras said Criminal District Court could ill afford to send money budgeted from the city to the lower court. That’s because Criminal Court already is losing court fees from those lesser charges.

Buras brought up the recent criminal prosecution of British actor Russell Brand, who was arrested in New Orleans in March and charged with simple criminal damage after he threw a photographer’s phone through a window. That matter was sent to Municipal Court.

By court agreement, prosecutors will drop the charge if Brand completes community services and pays a $500 fee – which Municipal Court now gets, not Criminal Court.

As a result of such shifting fees, Buras said her budget for the remainder of 2012 was “quite grim.”

Cannizzaro, who addressed the council after Buras finished, stressed that the changes have streamlined the justice system.

He noted that the shifting of marijuana-related charges out of Criminal Court had been a boon for efficiency. Many of those cases involving small amounts of pot are already going through Municipal Court following a city law enacted in 2011 that put simple possession charges under its purview.

But that law didn’t address a set of  more serious marijuana-related state misdemeanor charges available to police and prosecutors.

Cannizzaro said he is sending those and other misdemeanor cases to Municipal Court, which, he said, is adjudicating them faster, with 75 percent cleared in the first six months of this year. That’s three times the rate of Criminal Court’s record from the same period last year, he said.

“I know the judges want the state misdemeanor cases back in Criminal Court,” he said, “but this has been a much more efficient operation in the Municipal Court.”

Cannizzaro also told the council his office is enjoying an improved relationship with the New Orleans Police Department. He said NOPD notifies his office of when homicides happen, letting a member of the prosecutor’s team get to the scene and begin working the case alongside the detectives.

Cannizzaro said his office is accepting many more cases from the police – 85 percent as opposed to around 50 percent, historically – while maintaining an overall 90 percent conviction rate.

Guidry asked Cannizzaro about staffing differences at the courts.

Municipal Court judges, until recently, had been conducting probable cause hearings over the weekend – but only where an arrestee was brought in on municipal charges.

Cannizzaro said even a three-day wait for a defendant’s first appearance on misdemeanor charges could meet the state requirement that prisoners see a judge within 72 hours, because weekends don’t count against the clock.

“There is no constitutional issue,” he said, though he acknowledged the problems it creates for those locked up but presumed innocent.

In any case, Municipal Court is now conducting Saturday bond hearings for arrestees brought in on state misdemeanor charges, a development in the past two weeks.

This story replaces an earlier version, which can be seen here. The earlier version incorrectly stated that the shift in prosecutions resulted from policy changes by the City Council. In fact, this was a shift at the discretion of the district attorney, separate from the council action. 

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...