Hearings in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have been suspended this week to allow the Orleans Public Defenders office and the District Attorney’s Office to negotiate plea deals in hundreds of pending criminal cases as a way to address a backlog that has piled up since New Orleans judges suspended jury trials — and, for a while, hearings — last year in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Meanwhile, the Orleans Public Defenders office is pushing for a plan that an official from the office said would address the backlog more efficiently than plea deals: a mass dismissal of broad categories of criminal cases that have either languished for several years or are for lower level offenses. DA Jason Williams’ office, however, said it will not sign on to the proposal. 

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court building was already set to be partially closed for repairs, but the court’s judges agreed to delay all in-person as well as virtual hearings at the request of the DA and the public defenders. First appearance hearings are still ongoing during the closure.

As COVID-19 cases began to climb last spring, Criminal District Court temporarily halted many court proceedings last spring. While other hearings have resumed, a suspension of jury trials remains. As a result, the court has built up a massive backlog of cases. 

Orleans Public Defenders Chief of Trials Danny Engelberg told The Lens that the scheduled maintenance closure created an opportunity for the two sides to negotiate and reduce the backlog.

“We asked for some time to really dive deep and try to address the massive backlog due to the fact that they were already planning on doing maintenance this week,” he said. “Their need to close the building for maintenance and our need to address the crisis aligned.”

Criminal District Court Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik told The Lens that the court was only going to be partially closed for maintenance, but when the DA’s office and public defenders asked that hearings be suspended, they decided to shut it down completely. He said that the judges signed off on the agreement to suspend hearings this week in early March.

All hearings that were previously scheduled for this week have been reset for later dates, Kazik said, and the DA’s office was responsible for informing private attorneys of the changes while OPD was responsible for informing defendants they represent.

“I guess we’ll know when we get back if it caused a problem,” Kazik said. “I’m not sure what kind of progress they anticipate on accomplishing — you know, what their goal is to accomplish.”

Engelberg said that his office and Williams’ office had scheduled meetings to address over 400 outstanding cases. The backlog, according to Engelberg, is massive. As of March 1, he said, there were over 4,500 open cases in Criminal District Court — the vast majority of them felonies. There are also over 2,000 cases currently being screened by the DA’s office, Engelberg said. 

“I think, counter intuitively, the more that the prosecutors and the defense can negotiate and communicate and work out of court, the more efficient and the more work gets done in court,” Engelberg said.

The public defenders are also pushing for the implementation of an ambitious  “alternative case resolution plan” that would have the DA’s office dismiss all misdemeanor charges and felonies — aside from rape and murder — that were charged before August 1, 2017. The DA’s office said that while it agrees with some of the ideas in the plan, it can’t sign on, and that it will evaluate each case individually. 

In his first month in office, Williams’ prosecutors dismissed over 400 cases that were being charged by the previous administration under his predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro. But Engelberg said that while both offices were working hard to move through the backlog, the resolution plan put forward by OPD was a more effective approach.

He said the office has been pushing the plan since before Williams even took office, and that he was aware of it when he was chair of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, and was generally supportive. 

The plan also asks the DA to dismiss any non-violent, non-sex offenses that were brought after August 1, 2019.

“Failure to bring a case to trial for extended periods of time – sometimes even years – shows that it was a low priority for judges and prosecutors, strongly suggesting either that the evidence in the case was weak or the individual in question was not a danger to society,” the plan reads. 

In addition, the plan seeks to have low-level, non-violent felonies dismissed “if the defendant has been able to demonstrate rehabilitation or willingness to comply with rehabilitation conditions,” and all court debts aside from restitution payments forgiven.   

“These are solid ideas in principle and this is a remarkably helpful tool for initiating evaluation of OPD’s cases; however, we cannot sign on to this complete plan,” Williams said in the statement. “Our obligation to the public requires that we truly evaluate each case on its merits rather than carving out broad categories of crimes for dismissal or refusal.”

Engelberg pushed back on the notion that each case needs to be handled individually. 

“There are broad categories of arrest and prosecution, just based on where you live, what you look like, how much money is  in your pocket,” Engelberg said. “So we should make broad policy decisions in that respect.”

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...