District Attorney Jason Williams speaks at a press conference in February. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason WIlliams announced on Tuesday that he is working with Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the New Orleans Public Library to open up “satellite offices” around the city that will house the DA’s diversion program — a sentencing alternative program that allows people charged with crimes to avoid prosecution and jail time — as well as direct people to social services and attempt to engage local communities in an effort to more effectively investigate crime.

“These sites will primarily house our diversion services program and other resources to help folks,” Williams said at a speech in recognition of his first 100 days in office. “When a mom finds herself at her wits’ end with her child, they can come and meet with a DA liaison in a local library in her community to find what services are available to help her get her young child on the right track.”

Williams’ Chief Administrative Officer Tyronne Walker told The Lens that the office was working to finalize negotiations with the Mayor’s Office, and that he was confident they would “be able to cut ribbon on at least two” of the satellite offices in the next 30 to 45 days.

“The DA’s  vision is that the office can do much more community engagement and outreach before and after violence, or crimes occur,” Walker said. “We believe that if we put services and more of a presence in the community, consistently, that will help improve the amount of trust that the community has with law enforcement —  particularly the DA’s office.” 

Walker said the first offices would likely be in New Orleans East and Central City. One location — the Keller Center on Magnolia Street— has already been confirmed. 

Emily Wolff, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, said in an email that her office is coordinating with the DA’s office to set up the satellite offices. She said the effort “will not only increase community access to services but also allows the city to leverage resources in order to meet people where they are.” 

New Orleans Public Library Director Gabriel Morley did not respond to an email from The Lens regarding the satellite offices. 

Creating community satellite offices was one of the many ideas put forward by the Williams’ post-election transition team, who also presented their recommendations at the event on Tuesday. In their report, the transition team wrote that satellite offices “can help ensure accessibility and navigation through the systems maze while ensuring the DA’s office is not just seen when times are bad, but as part of the larger community.” 

Getting witnesses and victims to come forward and participate in prosecution efforts is something the office struggled with prior to Williams taking over. The previous DA, Leon Cannizzaro, pointed to lack of cooperation from victims when a watchdog group found that his office refused almost half of all felony domestic violence charges in 2019.

And sometimes he resorted to questionable tactics such as utilizing fake subpoenas and jailing victims in order to secure testimony — practices heavily criticized by Williams.

But Williams has also been vocal about the lack of community trust in the criminal legal system. 

“When I think about my predecessor’s use of bogus subpoenas and his hardline approach to try to make witnesses come forward, it was a flawed solution,” Williams said at a forum earlier this month. “But it was a solution to a very real problem. And the real problem is people don’t believe in the system and don’t want to be a part of the system. And we are working to rebuild that trust.”

Walker said that building community trust could help the DA’s office “solve serious crimes in our community that go unsolved, in part because of lack of witnesses to convict.” 

Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokesperson for the Orleans Public Defenders, said that the office would “support efforts to increase community access to supportive resources, but we must ensure this additional presence in the community doesn’t unnecessarily bring people into the criminal legal system.”

Details are still being worked out, Walker said, but that the offices will likely have a full-time staff of two or three employees, and will “be the primary means for folks being admitted into diversion programs” to do intake, check-ups, and “other supports that the our diversion team directly provides.”

He also said that they would provide spaces for partnerships with churches, non-profits, and community organizations, and to do weekend and evening programming. 

“There will be things that we hope to advertise in those communities as a resource, and a place for people to come to share concerns that they have or to get some guidance on how to maneuver in the criminal legal system,” Walker said. 

Simone Levine, executive director CourtWatch NOLA, was a co-chair of the “Rebuild Public Trust & Transparency” working group in Williams’ transition team, which recommended the satellite offices. She was supportive of the idea even before Williams took office in January, and on Wednesday said the offices would “make it easier for witnesses and victims to report crime.” 

Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, was likewise in favor of the idea.

“Previous, historic approaches to responding to crime have not only resulted in mass incarceration but have also left our community members with a lack of support,” she said in a statement. “These additional DA offices will instead offer helpful opportunities tailored to individual needs, which will aim to address the root causes of harm while upholding the dignity of participants. We believe this approach can have a powerful impact on the city and offer a second chance to individuals who’ve made a mistake.”

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...