Criminal Justice
 

DA to use most of city budget bump for prosecutors, not diversion program

Under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed budget, the district attorney’s office in 2019 is set to receive a 10 percent bump in its general fund allocation from the city — restoring funds that the City Council had cut over the past two years. According to the budget book, the extra $600,000 appears intended to bolster the district attorney’s pretrial diversion program, which connects people with social services, education, and job opportunities instead of saddling them with a trial and potential conviction.

At least, that’s what many city council members believed.

But according to District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s presentation to the City Council last week, only a fraction of these additional dollars will go to the diversion program. And it’s possible that no additional money will be spent on the diversion program at all.

In his opening presentation, Cannizzaro barely mentioned the program, focusing instead on the loss of experienced assistant district attorneys since his budget was cut by $600,000 in 2017. He thanked the mayor for restoring that lost revenue.

“The funding essentially is about trying to keep very qualified, skilled, and experienced personnel in the office,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. We also think that we can be more effective in the courts, in prosecuting the violent offenders.”

When Councilman Jason Williams asked how the budget increase would affect the program, Cannizzaro kept the focus on his office’s lack of experienced prosecutors.

“We can bring more assistant district attorneys into our office to work and we will be in a position with this stipend to increase those salaries, to give those individuals the money we think they’re entitled to,” he said. “And hopefully, there will be some money leftover so that we can at least increase the diversion program by at least one counselor.”

The budget increase is a general allocation, meaning there is no requirement for Cannizzaro to use it to fund the diversion program. Councilwoman Helena Moreno’s chief of staff, Andrew Tuozzolo, told The Lens that Moreno would not support the budget increase if it wasn’t spent on pretrial diversion.

Later in last week’s hearing, Councilman Jared Brossett asked Cannizzaro to clarify his outlook for the diversion program.

“You said you ‘hoped’ to increase the allocation, is that what I heard?” Brossett asked.

“If there is a surplus, and I’m hopeful that there will be, we will be in a position to then hire another diversion counselor,” Cannizzaro responded.

“I’m hearing that you’re saying that you hope, that you’ll attempt to,” Brossett said. “I want to be sure that when individuals come before us and they say they want an increase for a specific thing, in this case diversion, that’s what it’s going to be used for in the ‘19 budget.”

“If the funding is available, that will be our first priority,” Cannizzaro said.

Cannizzaro cut funding from the diversion program when his budget was reduced in 2016, according to The Advocate.

The pretrial diversion program was launched in 2009, and allows the district attorney to drop charges against accused people if they complete a program that can consist of education, job training, work requirements, substance counseling, and drug testing. The program mostly caters to first-time, nonviolent offenders, but Cannizzaro said they also offer the program to some second and third-time offenders.

The program currently has a budget of $450,000, all of which goes to the salaries of its 10 employees, according to Val Solino, from the district attorney’s office, who presented the DA’s budget with Cannizzaro. The program has been widely praised by city officials, and appears to be successful in keeping residents out of prison. Only six out of 903 clients in the program from July 1, 2015 to June 31, 2018 picked up another felony charge during that period, according to statistics released by the district attorney’s office earlier this year.

Funding for similar pretrial diversion programs in other parishes has far outpaced Cannizzaro’s office. In 2016, Rapides Parish allocated $2.2 million for pre-trial diversion, Calcasieu Parish allocated $1.65 million, and Jefferson Parish allocated $1.37 million, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.

At last week’s hearing, Cannizzaro said the program has roughly 500 participants at any one time, and that hiring another diversion counselor would allow his office to enroll an additional 40 to 50 people. He said that if they start accepting “higher-risk individuals,” that number would be lower.

After Cannizzaro’s presentation, there was some confusion about what the budget increase would be used for. In a press release sent on Friday, Moreno praised some of the initiatives in Cantrell’s proposed budget, including “Funding the District Attorney (DA) Diversion Program.”

“I’m encouraged to see the funding of the DA’s Diversion Program, a critical tool for criminal justice reform,” the statement said.

Tuozzolo told The Lens that the statement was based on how the revenue increase was characterized in Cantrell’s budget book.

“The councilmember supports the direct funding of the diversion program,” he said. “We would not support it being used for other reasons. The intention of supporting that $600,000 is to support the DA’s diversion program.”

Even if the district attorney’s office does hire another diversion counselor, the vast majority of the $600,000 budget increase would not be spent on the diversion program.

The diversion program is first mentioned in Cantrell’s budget book in the general fund “priority area” section.

“The court system and District Attorney will see an increase of $4.2 million in General Funds, for a total of $80.4 million,” it says. “This funding includes $600,000 to restore the City’s diversion program.”

Asked to confirm that the sentence refers to the DA’s $600,000 funding increase, a Cantrell spokesman did not respond.

But further down, in the District Attorney’s Office budget review, it says that “the first priority of the District Attorney’s Office is to represent the interests of the City of New Orleans in criminal proceedings in Orleans parish by prosecuting violent offenders who threaten public safety and citizens’ way of life.”

Also in this section, the budget book says that the district attorney will “endeavor” to expand the diversion program from 400 to 450 participants. This is inconsistent with Cannizzaro’s assertion that the program currently caters to 500 people. It is, however, in line with Cannizzaro’s claim that one extra diversion counselor would add roughly 50 people to the program.

Neither Cantrell nor Cannizzaro responded to requests for comment. Council members Kristen Palmer, Jason Williams, Jay Banks, Cyndi Nguyen, and Jared Brossett didn’t respond to requests for comment. Councilman Joseph Giarrusso declined to comment.

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About Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.