Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Jason Williams has presented himself with a difficult task. As the Orleans Parish District Attorney-elect put it in his victory speech, his election on Saturday marked the beginning of what he described as his fight to undo “300 years of backward thinking.” 

More specifically: Williams has vowed to transform a “win at all costs” culture that he says has pervaded the DAs office for decades and nurtured aggressive and unethical prosecutions — leading to wrongful convictions, excessive sentences, community distrust, and to New Orleans having, historically, one of the highest incarceration rates in the country

“The only benefit from the win at all cost culture was literally just notches on the belt, from prosecutors and prosecutors’ offices,” Williams said in an interview on Thursday. “No public safety benefits. No rehabilitation for offenders.”

Williams ran on a host of policy reforms — including reforming the money bail system, ending the use of the state’s habitual-offender bill, and no longer trying juveniles as adults.

But changing the culture of the office, it appears, will begin with personnel. Every person in the DA’s office will need to reapply for their job — a process that is already beginning to get underway, starting with leadership. 

“Every single person in that office has to understand the culture shift, and the paradigm shift that is going to occur next year,” Williams said. “And we need to make sure that they are on board, understand, and will not just be willing to do this work this way, but are committed to zealously doing this work this way.” 

He also confirmed that former director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, Emily Maw, will oversee what Williams described as a “robust” Civil Rights Division in his office that will review potential wrongful convictions, excessive sentences, and the cases of over 300 people still in prison on finalized non-unanimous jury verdicts. 

Williams has also said he is looking to other “progressive prosecutors” throughout the country for guidance and insight for how to implement the policy changes he has proposed and institute a new culture in the office. He has said he has talked to people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Rachael Rollins in Boston, and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.

“We’re cheating off the paper of some folks that have already gone through this process,” he said. 

Derwyn Bunton, the Chief Public Defender for Orleans Parish, said on Friday that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the incoming administration based on the platform Williams ran on and his history of interest in the criminal legal system. But he said the public defenders office —along with the rest of the criminal legal system in the city — were in a wait-and-see posture.

“I think we’re all sort of reserving judgment,” Bunton said. “We’re all going to be a bit tentative. And that’s going to equal a bit of a honeymoon period. But depending on what gets implemented — any of us, you know, public defenders, the court, the police— any of us could bristle.” 

In a response to a request for comment on the incoming DA and his policy proposals, an NOPD spokesperson said the department congratulates Williams and “looks forward to a continued strong partnership with the DA’s Office under his leadership.”

‘I want people to understand why we’re doing it differently’

At a press conference at Booker T. Washington High School on Monday, Williams was asked whether or not there would be layoffs at the DA’s office given the significant budget cuts it faces this year. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed budget cut the city allocation for the DA by 20 percent. Then, an amendment brought by Williams in his position on the City Council aimed at providing more money for the public defenders office, cut it by another $300,000. 

Cannizzaro has said that the additional cut “spells doom for many of our still-furloughed employees and inflicts excessive damage to the continued operations of this office for the next administration.”

But Williams has repeatedly brushed off the suggestion that the DA’s budget is in crisis, saying that there is plenty of “fat” that can be trimmed off.

“There’s probably gonna absolutely be some layoffs,” Williams responded on Monday, “but not because of the financial crisis. It’s going to be because if people don’t believe in the culture change in the office.” 

He also recounted a conversation he had with the Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner about his efforts to change the culture in the DAs office in Philadelphia when he took over in 2018. Krasner told him that “the most difficult part of the job is getting people to redefine what success is in that office.”

Shortly after Krasner was elected, he reportedly called 31 employees into the office on a day it was closed due to a snowstorm. They were told to resign or they would be fired the following Monday, and were then escorted out of the building by security. (One of the prosecutors who was forced to resign called the incident “personal and vindictive.” Kranser has since faced a series of discrimination lawsuits against his office filed by employees who were fired or forced to resign.)

When Eddie Jordan took over the New Orleans DA’s office in 2003, he fired 43 white employees, leading to a $3.7 racial discrimination judgement against him that, in part, forced his resignation in 2007.

But on Thursday, Williams stressed that for DA’s office employees, reapplying “will be a respectful, humane process.”

“There’s a fear that I was just going to come through dropping pink slips on people’s desks, and tell them to pack up and leave,” he said. “But there is going to be a process in which a person will go through an in-depth interview.” 

The process will begin before he officially takes office, Williams said, beginning with the leadership positions, and then moving on to attorneys and investigators. He said that he would look back at individuals’ records, and also provide hypothetical scenarios to ascertain each person’s “views on certain cases, their views on addiction, their views on a person and not throes of a mental health crisis.” 

“If given autonomy, and faced with this set of facts,  what would they approach a supervisor for?” he said “To increase charges? Decrease charges? Increase a sentence? Decrease a sentence? To prosecute for additional crimes, or not prosecute at all?” 

“And so I want this process to let me see how they think and how they feel about people. And how they feel how they think and feel about their obligation as lawyers and investigators.” 

Ken Daley, a spokesperson for Cannizzaro, said in an email that the office had its first meeting with Williams on Thursday.  But in a response to a request for comment on the reapplication process for employees, Williams’ desire to change the culture of the office, and concerns in the office about what that may entail,  Daley said only that they “anticipate a cordial and cooperative transition process culminating with his inauguration on Jan. 11.”

With personnel in place, Williams said he will go through retraining prosecutors on things like turning over exculpatory evidence, which has been a factor in wrongful convictions dating back to longtime DA Harry Connick’s tenure, which lasted from 1974 to 2003. Williams said he plans institute a policy of open file discovery— in which defense attorneys have open access to evidence gathered by the prosecution— which he argued “should be the standard across the country.”

In addition, he will implement a policy memo similar to the one issued by Krasner in Philadelphia, that will advise prosecutors on how to handle certain types of cases—what should be dismissed, what should be given diversion, and what should be prosecuted —and why.

“In that policy basically also going to, in great detail, articulate the public safety benefits and fiscal benefits to taxpayers for doing it this way,” Williams said. “I don’t want to tell people what to do. I want people to understand why we’re doing it differently, and why it is going to be a safer place because of it.”

Civil Rights Division

During the campaign, Williams regularly talked about the need for the DA’s office to “address the sins of the past.” And on Thursday, he confirmed that Maw, former director of the Innocence Project New Orleans— a group that works to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted— will head that effort as the director of the offices Civil Rights Division. 

While it will be Maw’s first time working within the DA’s office, it will not be her first attempt to work with it. In 2014, at the encouragement of Williams on the City Council — who also secured city funding — Cannizzaro’s office teamed up with the Innocence Project New Orleans while she was director to create a conviction integrity unit. But that effort was short-lived and relatively unsuccessful. Maw, at the time, called it “disappointing.” 

“When the project started off, they did not demonstrate any significant shift in the way they approached these cases,” Maw told the Times-Picayune/NOLA.com. “Because it wasn’t a priority, it was not worth the investment anymore.”

Since then she has been critical of Cannizzaro’s office for continuing to pursue prosecutions for people who have had their sentences overturned by higher courts. 

But on Friday, Maw said that she is looking forward to her upcoming position in the DA’s office.

“It’s very exciting to be invited to be a part of an office that considers past harm reduction to be central to its service to the community,” Maw said. “I understand that there will be a lot of very hard work to do. But I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to lead that hard work.” 

Whether or not she will have better luck under the new administration remains to be seen, but Williams has promised that the division will be given ample resources.

“Typically, in a lot of offices,  the conviction review unit or the Civil Rights Division is a tiny, small, underfunded space, with not enough staff,” Williams said. “We are looking at restructuring the office in a way that it will be as robust as every other division— like sexual assault and domestic violence. It will have the same weight and gravitas in the office as the narcotics division.”

That will likely be necessary, given the amount of work Williams has already assigned it. There are 326 cases of people still in prison on finalized, non-unanimous jury verdicts that Williams has promised the division will review. That is in addition to investigating a broader range of potential wrongful convictions or excessive sentences.

Williams, who did not have the endorsements of most of the political establishment in the city, said that the reforms he is proposing could encounter some pushback. But he said that the voters have spoken.

“You know, I mean, regardless of what the change is, or what the reform is, there’s always going to be some pushback from somewhere,” he said. “There are always people who are scared to change. But I would not dare to forecast pushback. Especially when you look at the numbers we won by. Clearly the public wants the policies and reforms we talked about.”

This story has been updated to include a comment from Emily Maw.

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...