District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro asks the City Council for additional funding to handle new cases in juvenile court as a result of the state's "Raise the Age" law. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Thursday asked the New Orleans City Council for $300,000 in additional city funding for his 2020 budget to cover five new employees, including three new prosecutors, for the juvenile justice system.

The new hires are necessary, he argued, because starting on July 1, 2020, 17-year-olds charged with violent crimes will be routed to juvenile courts instead of the adult system — the second phase of Louisiana’s “Raise the Age” law passed in 2016.

Currently, those kids are automatically put into the adult system. For a number of serious violent crimes, the DA will still have the option to prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, but they will no longer be handled that way automatically. 

Of the three new prosecutors the DA is asking for, one would prosecute cases in court, the second would be tasked with case management and a third would head the “Juvenile Restorative Justice unit, to negotiate alternative case outcomes that satisfy crime victims,” according to Cannizzaro’s presentation

The other two new employees would be an investigator and juvenile diversion counselor. The diversion program for juvenile court is separate from the adult program, according to the office’s director of social services Andree Mattix, and currently contains two full-time and one part-time employee. 

But all of those additions are only possible if the council gives the DA’s office $300,000 more than what is included in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed 2020 budget, which keeps the city-funded portion of the DA’s funding steady from 2019 to 2020 at $6.7 million. The DA’s full budget, which includes revenue from the state and other sources, is expected to be $12.4 million, Cannizzaro spokesman Ken Daley told The Lens. 

The council is currently holding hearings to give departments and agencies the chance to justify their budgets or advocate for more funding. The council has the final say over the budget, and has until Dec. 1 to tweak and approve a final version. 

Off the bat, several council members expressed skepticism that a budget increase was necessary. The loudest critiques came from Councilman Jason Williams, who, as he has in prior years, engaged Cannizzaro in a sometimes-heated back and forth.  

Williams announced in October 2018 that he will run for District Attorney in the 2020 election. Williams had previously run an unsuccessful bid for the position in 2008. Cannizzaro won the election in 2008, with Williams landing in third place in the primary. 

Williams questioned why the office would need more funding, since the DA’s office is responsible for prosecuting defendants in both juvenile and adult court. If a defendant who would have been in the city’s adult court — Orleans Parish Criminal District Court — now moves to juvenile court, Cannizaro’s case load would stay the same, he said. 

But Cannizaro said it wasn’t that simple. He said that prosecutors in juvenile court need specialized expertise, and that he couldn’t simply move a prosecutor from adult to juvenile court. 

Cannizaro also argued that the additional funding was necessary to make sure his office can track, screen and properly place dangerous juvenile criminals. 

“There’s no reason to shift to fearmongering so quickly,” Williams said. 

Williams asked how many juveniles tried in adult court this year would have been in juvenile court with the changes coming in 2020. First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin said they didn’t have those numbers off hand. 

“You’d agree with me that anecdote is very different than data,” Williams said to Martin. 

“We do anticipate from our discussions with the police that we will now be bringing in a greater number of violent crimes [to juvenile court],” Cannizzaro said. 

The “Raise the Age” law was passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2016 with the intent of keeping more minors out of the adult criminal justice system. The first phase of the law went into effect this year. As of March, 17-year-olds accused of non-violent crimes are routed to juvenile court instead of automatically going to the adult system. Juveniles accused of committing violent crimes will be included in the changes starting in July, 2020. 

Cannizzaro also said that his office is in desperate need of salary raises for assistant district attorneys. According to his presentation, 37 assistant district attorneys left the office this year, some of them for higher pay and lower caseloads in other parishes. 

While it doesn’t appear that those raises will come from the city’s general fund this year, Cannizzaro said that salaries will go up over the next three years due to increased funding from the state. He said the starting salary for assistant district attorney’s will go from $45,000 currently to $50,000 in 2022 due to additional state funding. 

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.