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Cannizzaro says justice system is mired in policy problems

25th August 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Sam Tabachnik
Contributing Writer

It is time to start trusting the criminal justice system in New Orleans.

That was the theme of the night at District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s annual “State of the Criminal Justice” address at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward last Tuesday night.

Standing on the same stage that hosted U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him, Cannizzaro recapped the “substantive policy problems” and “steady decline” that has long characterized New Orleans’ criminal justice system while touting the progress that his office has made since being elected five-and-a-half years ago.

One of the reforms Cannizzaro touted is a new and unusual partnership between the D.A.’s Office and the Innocence Project—a legal defense group that investigates wrongful convictions—called the Conviction Integrity Unit.

While the two groups have often stood on opposing sides of the courtroom, the unit will include members from both offices, Cannizzaro said, and their mission will be to “foster the existence of a fair criminal justice system – a system that is fair not only for the defendants but also for the victims of crime.”

City Councilman Jason Williams, a longtime criminal defense attorney, said the conviction integrity unit has the potential to help restore the public’s faith in the long-mistrusted Orleans criminal justice system.

“They’re going to do a lot more than just deal with convictions,” Williams said. “It’s going to really add credibility, and provide credibility for a lot of folks in the community that have felt disenfranchised from the criminal justice system—felt abused by the criminal justice system.

“It’s going to give them a voice.”

Cannizzaro also lauded his office’s work with the city’s juvenile division, detailing an aggressive juvenile diversion program which works to steer non-violent juveniles “back to the right course in life.” This process, he said, involves interaction with the parents of the juvenile as well as visits to their residence in order to determine if there is a stable home environment.

One of the biggest changes from his predecessors, Cannizzaro detailed, was the end to what became infamously known as “60-day murders.” This was a practice by the D.A.’s Office of releasing criminals from jail—many of whom had been arrested for murder or other violent crimes—because they could not make a charging decision within the time periods allowed under law.

This rampant mismanagement by the D.A.’s Office, according to Cannizzaro, had the offenders in jail calling home, confident that they would be released after their 60 days.

“We all grew weary of reading and watching stories about an individual with a record longer than my arm being arrested for a serious crime of violence,” the DA said.

“We all asked why this individual was not already behind bars.”

In the audience were several Criminal Court judges, all of whom are up for re-election, as well as U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and newly sworn-in interim NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Council President Stacy Head opened the event with brief remarks.

The site for the annual address came in a Lower 9th Ward neighborhood still reeling from a recent shooting spree that killed two and injured five others.

Lower 9 resident Leslie San­chez-Johnson came away from the address “very impressed” with the job that Cannizzaro has done but said her worries about the city’s violence remain.

“I fear for the young men and young kids in New Orleans,” she said.

This article originally published in the August 25, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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