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

Newly inaugurated Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams said on Friday that hiring decisions had been made for attorneys in the office, and a “pretty large swath” of prosecutors  who previously worked under former DA Leon Cannizzaro will stay on board with his new administration — though there would be a significant shake-up in leadership positions and the office structure more broadly. 

“One of the things that found after getting into here was there was a lot of top-level leadership, middle management, making twice as much, sometimes three times as much and more than the lawyers in trials, and carrying a whole lot less of the workload of this office,” Williams said in an interview with The Lens. “And so I’ve worked to sort of recalibrate that, reorganize the organizational structure of the office, and try to maximize efficiencies within the office. So there’s some top-level leaders that are gone. Some middle management that’s gone. But a lot of the young attorneys will stay on and do great work for us.”

A major theme of Williams’ campaign was changing what he described as a “win at all costs” mentality that has pervaded the DA’s office for years, which he said has led to over incarceration and wrongful convictions. After his election, he said that everyone in the office would need to be prepared for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the culture of the office. 

Williams didn’t give specifics on Friday about who in particular has been asked to stay on and who would be leaving. But yesterday he announced three new leadership appointments: Bob White, who has served as the first assistant in the Plaquemines Parish DA’s office since 2009, is signing on to be Williams’ first assistant district attorney, the top deputy for the DA. Williams also officially announced that former Innocence Project of New Orleans Director Emily Maw will head the office’s Civil Rights Division in the office, and that his former campaign manager Tyronne Walker would be his chief administrative officer. 

Walker, who also held several positions in former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, said on Friday that the prosecutors staying on would go through a new training process with Williams and White, and that he was confident they would be prepared to carry out the new mission of the office.

“Everyone went through a rigorous interview process, internal and external applicants, and we selected people that we have confidence can do the job,” he said. 

With initial hiring decisions put into place, Williams said that he was likely going to issue a directive next week putting into place the policies he campaigned on, such as mandating that prosecutors don’t utilize the habitual offender law and limiting the use of cash bail. 

“You can pretty much expect that everything we talked about in the campaign is going to be addressed in this policy paper,” he said. “Because I want the ADAs working for the people in my administration to know what I expect of them — and to know why.”

Williams also said he would also be reorganizing the office to have more divisions to address specific types of cases, such as sex crimes and domestic violence. Previously, he said, there was a single division in the office that handled all major offenses.

“There’s going to be new units that will work with a greater degree of specificity of the legal craft and of the type of cases that they’re doing,” Williams said. “That same thing will happen with investigators.”

He also said that he would be working to hire non-attorney trial assistants for each of the prosecutors in the office to help them with administrative work, which he said has been bogging down the office. 

He said that he found out that prosecutors had been “making all of their copies, making all their phone calls for the next day, trying to handle witnesses for the next hearing, while handling the hearing they’re involved now,” 

“And that is just a recipe for disaster,” Williams said.

In the last city budget, the city allocation to the DA’s office was cut by over 20 percent — in part due to Williams’ own efforts to route more money to the public defenders office instead. But Williams said that he would create a new position in the office that would target grants and other funding opportunities, and that by cutting some leadership positions that had inflated salaries he will be able to come up with the resources to create more support for trial prosecutors. 

“By letting some of those folks go, it allows us to redistribute resources in a way that is supportive of the people who are doing the lion’s share of the work in the office,” he said.

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...