A group of 30 criminal justice advocacy organizations and individuals throughout New Orleans and Louisiana unveiled a policy platform on Tuesday  intended to “end the era of mass incarceration in New Orleans.” To do that, the group — called the People’s DA Coalition — is taking aim at the upcoming District Attorney’s race, in which four candidates are running to replace retiring DA Leon Cannizzaro.

“It’s time for us to have a prosecutor, a DA who recognizes that the purpose of the justice system is to make people better,” said former New Orleans Judge Calvin Johnson at an online unveiling of the platform on Tuesday. “To make our city better. To make the justice system better. That’s the prosecutor’s role. That’s the prosecutor’s job. And the People’s DA Coalition is going to hold the prosecutor to it.” 

The People’s DA Coalition platform calls for the next DA to institute a set of policies aimed at making the criminal legal system in New Orleans less punitive and focused on incarceration, and instead turn toward things like restorative justice, rehabilitative programs, and alternatives to imprisonment.

Many of the proposals in the platform have been pushed by criminal justice reform advocates for years — ending the use of the habitual offender bill, declining to prosecute “quality of life crimes,” implementing a conviction integrity unit to uncover potential wrongful convictions, and never seeking or threatening the death penalty.

It also includes suggestions regarding more administrative functions of the DAs office — training prosecutors on racial bias, giving assistant district attorney’s the discretion to resolve cases through refusing charges or offering diversion, and collect and make publicly available both internal policies and data surrounding the prosecution of cases — such as the demographics of the individuals involved and the reasons charges are refused or accepted. 

The platform also outlines an approach that would “center survivors” of crime in the prosecution processes by keeping them informed of court dates, their rights, contact information for the prosecutor assigned, and involving them in decisions making with regards to their case throughout the process.  

The primary election for District Attorney is on Nov. 3 with a runoff scheduled for Dec. 5. The candidates are City Councilman Jason Williams, recently retired Criminal District Court Judges Keva Landrum and Arthur Hunter, and former president of the New Orleans NAACP, Morris Reed. Cannizzaro announced on July 24, the last day of qualifying for the election, that he would retire at the end of his current term. 

At the webinar on Tuesday, Victoria Coy, the coalition coordinator, said that each of the candidates running for Orleans Parish District Attorney had received copies of the platform, and were encouraged to respond. 

“We have asked them for their feedback, and not just because we want to put them on the spot and publish it, and say ‘You said this, and not that!’” Coy said. “Will we do that? Yes. But we have also offered our experts as guides, because we want reformation. We want a candidate that believes in the things we believe in and will work to accomplish those things.”

She also announced that the coalition would be hosting an online forum with all the candidates on September 23, which will be open to the public and live-streamed on the coalitions Facebook page. 

A move away from ‘tough-on-crime’

The platform is intended to give candidates a policy framework to move away from a tough-on-crime philosophy that has dominated criminal justice in New Orleans and around the country for decades. To many criminal justice reform groups, that philosophy is embodied in prosecutors like longtime Orleans Parish DA Harry Connick and, more recently, Cannizzaro. 

Throughout his nearly 12-year tenure in office, Cannizzaro has at various times touted his reform efforts, including the expansion of the DA’s office’s diversion program, his early support for treating marijuana possession as a minor municipal offense — though he later called an ordinance to reduce fines for the crime “stupid” — and the creation of a conviction integrity unit — meant to uncover wrongful convictions — in partnership with the Innocence Project New Orleans, an effort that was short-lived.

But he has also been criticized as overly aggressive, in part for his willingness to jail victims of domestic and sexual violence, and his prosecutors’ use of fake subpeonas to pressure reluctant witnesses into talking, as well as the office’s use of the habitual offender law — allowing significant sentence enhancements for multiple offenders. Cannizzaro’s office once used the habitual offender law more than any other DA’s office in the state, but has since scaled back.

A spokesperson for DA Cannizaro’s office declined to comment on the People’s DA Coalition platform. 

Two of the candidates for DA — Jason Williams and Arthur Hunter — were enthusiastic about the platform. Williams said there was nothing in the platform that he opposed, and that it mirrored the “smart on crime” platform he used in his previous, unsuccessful run for DA in 2008, the year Cannizzaro was first elected. 

“The fact that you have such a robust group of people and organizations that basically align with my entire platform is really exciting and really promising for the city,” Williams said on Tuesday. 

Hunter said he aligned with the vast majority of the platform, but there were a few points he wouldn’t fully commit to. While the platform calls for ending the use of the habitual offender bill altogether, Hunter said he would reserve it for the most serious and egregious violent crimes. In addition, Hunter said he wouldn’t commit to never seeking the death penalty, saying he would look at it on a case by case basis — in particular when the victims were children. 

Williams said he would commit to never using the habitual offender law nor seek the death penalty. 

The other two candidates — Morris Reed and Keva Landrum — were not able to be reached regarding the platform on Wednesday.

Nicholas 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...