District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

In 2014, as he entered into a campaign for re-election, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro gave a speech at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School on the state of the criminal justice system in New Orleans.

The speech was a balancing act. Cannizzaro issued some tough-on-crime rhetoric. But he also touted progressive reforms, such as an increase in victim counselors, an expanded pre-trial diversion program under his watch, cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct, building community trust, and a new Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project in partnership with the Innocence Project New Orleans, that would scrutinize potential past cases of wrongful conviction.

He also had praise for City Councilman Jason Williams — a defense attorney — who gave the introduction to his speech.

“As I have said almost every day since his election, I would much rather see Councilman Williams on the City Council dais or in places such as this rather than sitting across from me in the courtroom,” Cannizzaro said.  “Councilman Williams represented his clients well, but the entire city of New Orleans is lucky to have Jason representing them today in the City Council.”

Much has changed since 2014.

Related: Civil rights lawsuit over fake subpoenas, witness arrests allowed to go forward, judge rules

The Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project no longer exists. Public perception of the office’s integrity and its sensitivity to victims has not fared much better. Revelations that the DA’s office was issuing fake subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify, and at times jailed victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, drew national media attention and harsh condemnation from local officials. In October of 2017, the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps filed a federal civil rights suit against Cannizzaro and several of his prosecutors.

According to quality of life studies conducted by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, Cannizzaro’s approval rating dropped from 55 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2018.

City Councilman Jason Williams, for his part, has emerged as a vocal critic of Cannizzaro and announced that he’ll be running for District Attorney in 2020. Williams also ran for the position back in 2008, when Cannizzaro was first elected. He placed third in that race, failing to make the runoff. A spokesperson for Williams did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The conciliatory tone Cannizzaro used to approach reform advocates in 2014 also seems to have now disappeared. Recently, he has been outspoken about what he views as city officials imperiling public safety through reform efforts that have gone too far. It is a political stance that some who spoke with The Lens say is a reasonable response to the city’s crime rate. Others, however, said it could place him at odds with criminal justice trends both locally and nationwide if he decides to run for reelection in 2020.

According to The Advocate, earlier this month, in a speech at the Metropolitan Crime Commission luncheon, he characterized current efforts to decrease the jail population as  “grand social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naïve politicians” and urged the “silent majority of New Orleans residents” concerned about public safety to speak up.

He also held a press conference in which he dismissed a resolution passed unanimously by the city council denouncing the jailing of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault as a “political attack.”

In a statement, Cannizzaro’s spokesman Ken Daley said it would be “premature” to comment on an election that is nearly two years away. But he defended Cannizzaro’s record, saying the DA supported criminal justice reform programs when he believed they would work.

“The DA makes no apologies for aggressively prosecuting violent criminals,” Daley said. “That does not mean he opposes reform efforts, if they are rooted in common sense and not simply a grab for grant dollars.”

‘They will be running against a backdrop of criminal justice reform’

This charged atmosphere between the city council, reform groups, and the DA’s office previews what will likely be a contentious district attorney’s race in 2020, no matter who the candidates are.

“They will be running against a backdrop of criminal justice reform locally, statewide, and nationally” said Derwyn Bunton, the city’s chief public defender. “So each one is going to have to put forward a vision of what they feel the initiatives are that are going to carry that forward.”

Edward Chervenak, a political analyst and the director of the UNO Survey Research Center, has also sensed a shift away from the traditional rhetoric surrounding DA races in the past.

“That was the whole mantra, ‘Who’s going to be tougher on crime?’” Chervenak said. “I think here the argument will be, ‘Who’s going to be smarter on crime?’”

The last few years have been productive for criminal justice reform advocates and those hoping to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in New Orleans. In 2017, the Louisiana State Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act,* a series of bills that reduced the state’s prison population enough for Louisiana to relinquish its title as the incarceration capital of the United States.

Last October, Governor John Bel Edwards announced that $3.4 million of the money saved from the effort would be reinvested in organizations in Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Tammany Parishes, that aim to help those who have been released from prison transition back to society.

”The DA makes no apologies for aggressively prosecuting violent criminals. That does not mean he opposes reform efforts, if they are rooted in common sense and not simply a grab for grant dollars.”—Ken Daley, Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office

Then, in November, another victory was delivered to reformers when Louisiana voters overturned a Jim Crow-era law that had made Louisiana one of only two states that allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts on felony trials.

Across the country, criminal justice reformers have begun focusing on the position of the district attorney as an essential element to reversing the trend of mass incarceration. Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, and Wesley Bell in St. Louis, among others, have won elections on platforms arguing for a less punitive and more equitable justice system.

A national 2017 poll by the ACLU found that 89 percent of voters think that it is important for their prosecutors to prioritize decarceration by utilizing prison alternatives.

Miriam Krinsky is the director of Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that works with elected prosecutors across the country to implement reform policies. She told The Lens that nationally, there is a new public awareness of the importance of the district attorney’s position, as well as an appetite for reducing incarceration.

“Voters have now been gaining a deeper understanding of the incredibly impactful role of prosecutors. We’ve been seeing more incumbents being challenged, which used to be unheard of, and we’re seeing individuals successfully challenging incumbents by promoting an agenda of turning back the tough-on-crime tide,” she said.

“The group of prosecutors we work with are really reflective of a different and unique moment that we’ve come to, where voters in communities recognize that growing our prisons and jails has had a huge fiscal and personal cost that hasn’t necessarily worked in many cases.”

‘We’re all concerned about our safety’

In New Orleans, however, Bunton said that the DA’s office has “at times been opposed to reform, and at times been silent on it.”

Bunton views the claims by Cannizzaro that there is a “silent majority” of New Orleans residents who are concerned about their safety as misguided, and that reform efforts to reduce the jail population have not resulted in more crime.

“Yeah, we’re all concerned about our safety. But we’re no safer because we keep poor people in jail because they’re poor. We’re no safer because we send a drug addict to jail for life.”

Daley, Cannizzaro’s spokesman, said in an email that labeling Cannizzaro as opposed to reform was a mischaracterization.

As examples of the DA’s efforts to reform the office, Daley pointed to his 2009 support for treating simple marijuana possession as a municipal offense — allowing police officers to issue summonses rather than arresting suspects — and the implementation of an expedited case screening process to try to reduce the amount of time criminal suspects spend in jail before trial.

Cannizzaro also expanded the pre-trial diversion program, in which prosecutors can drop charges against first-time offenders in exchange for completing a program that may include job training and drug rehabilitation. The office had planned to expand pre-trial diversion even further, he said, but was “forced to shelve those plans when the criminal defense lawyer heading the City Council”— presumably referring to Williams —“helped orchestrate budget cuts of $600,000 against our office in both 2017 and 2018.”

”Yeah, we’re all concerned about our safety. But we’re no safer because we keep poor people in jail because they’re poor. We’re no safer because we send a drug addict to jail for life.”—Derwyn Bunton, Orleans Parish Public Defender’s Office

That funding was restored in this year’s budget, but at a budget hearing late last year, Cannizzaro said he intended to use most of it to pay for prosecutors, not the diversion program.

Explaining Cannizzaro’s criticism of efforts to lower bail amounts in order to reduce the jail population, Daley said, “He does not believe anyone should remain jailed solely because they are too poor to afford bail.”

But he added that judges can’t ignore defendants’ criminal histories, their risk of flight and the danger they might pose if released from jail.

“He wants a lower jail population because fewer people are committing crime,” Daley said. “But he opposes haphazardly releasing violent criminals to meet artificial quotas dictated by others.”

Those who are critical of the DA and his rhetoric also acknowledge the fact that high rates of violent crime in the city are likely to shape the debate over reform.

“The reality is we are still a very violent city,” said Jee Park, Director of the Innocence Project New Orleans. “Every morning when you read the paper, there is a shooting, or an armed robbery—a violent act has happened somewhere in this city. That’s very much a concern of many community members, including me.”

When there are instances of highly visible violence, she said, such as shootings during Mardi Gras, “that gets people scared, and incensed, and more law and order oriented.”

“At the same time,” she said, “I think people are tired of the fear-mongering, and tired of throwing money to the jails. I think people really want more stable housing, and more drug treatment.”

Mike Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, echoed the DA’s concerns about efforts to reduce the jail population.

“There is a sociological push to reduce incarceration, and I think in an effort to reduce incarceration we have taken some steps that will ultimately prove counterproductive,” he said.

“The ultimate goal is noble, but you have to consider the consequences of doing that. If you want to reduce the jail population, it’s pretty simple: Just open the door. We can reduce it completely, if you like.”

Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche and New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation CEO Melanie Talia, both former Orleans Parish prosecutors who have supported Cannizzaro in the past, did not respond to requests for an interview. And Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, declined to comment.

Simone Levine, the director of Court Watch NOLA, a non-partisan watchdog group that observes courtrooms and issues recommendations, emphasized the need for the DA’s office to be more collaborative and public-facing in their approach to prosecuting crimes.

”There is a sociological push to reduce incarceration, and I think in an effort to reduce incarceration we have taken some steps that will ultimately prove counterproductive.”—Mike Glasser, Police Association of New Orleans

“I think that a new district attorney needs to start implementing a real program of restorative justice,”  Levine said, “where you actually ask victims what they want out of the process.”

She also suggested that the next DA place satellite offices in poorer neighborhoods to increase their visibility and strengthen community trust, as well as  increasing the number of social workers and victim advocates.

“So often we have victims that are involved in this process, and it is supposed to be victim-centered justice, and they’re losers out of the system as well” said Levine. “They’re not being listened to. They’re not getting any safety or satisfaction out of the larger process.”

Levine has been a vocal critic of the DA’s practice of jailing victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, which she sees as a product of the office’s willingness to prioritize getting a conviction over the trauma of the victim.

Among the other issues reform advocates are hoping to see addressed in the upcoming election are bail reform, use of the habitual offender statute — which Cannizzaro’s prosecutors once used far more than anywhere else in the state, but scaled back in 2017 and 2018 — policies surrounding pre-trial discovery, the practice of charging juvenile offenders as adults, and the possibility of re-establishing a conviction review unit operating within the district attorney’s office.

“My understanding is, we’re finally going to have a race with some people interested in criminal justice reform,” said Jancy Hoeffel, a law professor at Tulane. “I certainly hope that they will be talking about issues of mass incarceration, jailing the poor, and being responsible to the public about where they’re spending our money.”

“Since I’ve lived here for twenty years,” said Hoeffel, “we certainly haven’t had a DA’s race where any of that is ever talked about. I’m hopeful it will be talked about now.”

*Correction: As originally published, this story reported that the Justice Reinvestment Act was passed in 2016, not 2017.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...