It's no secret that New Orleans’ police force is undermanned and overburdened. One side effect of that manpower shortage is that even though crime has risen in the city, NOPD officers have logged fewer felony arrests, year after year.

Yet the decline has done nothing to diminish New Orleans' standing as the top contributor to Louisiana's nation-leading incarceration rate.

In fact, the city's lead has grown since Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro took office in early 2009, state data show.

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New Orleans is the only place in Louisiana to significantly increase its total of state inmates over that time.

The number of state inmates from Orleans Parish rose by 15 percent — or about 760 inmates — from the start of 2009 to the end of 2016, even as the state's overall prison population slid by 5 percent, according to the state figures.

Nearly one in six state inmates got there through the Orleans Parish court system. Orleans has about 8.3 percent of the state's population.

Whether Cannizzaro deserves credit or blame for the aggressive prosecutorial policies that have bucked the statewide trend is a question that has sparked intense local political debate and a heated war of words following a decision late last year by the City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu to trim the DA's 2017 budget by $600,000.

Cannizzaro portrays the cut as a misguided and dangerous bid to punish him for his high rate of accepting felony cases for prosecution, and for his frequent transfers of juvenile armed robbers to adult court.

His critics, led by City Councilman Jason Williams, argue that Cannizzaro is obstinately out of step with national "best practices," and that his eagerness to prosecute the vast majority of people arrested on felony counts ignores a long history of shaky policing in the city.

The data suggest that either way, New Orleans and its hard-charging top prosecutor pose a formidable obstacle as Gov. John Bel Edwards and state lawmakers consider reforms aimed at ending Louisiana's label as the country's biggest jailer.

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The city's extreme level of violence and its high population of repeat violent criminals are the real culprits, in the eyes of former NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.

Serpas, who co-chairs a group called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, said criticism of Cannizzaro is misdirected.

"We can't always ignore the uniqueness of the criminal environment of New Orleans just because we want to sound like we want to be like everybody else," Serpas said. "In some cases, we just are not."

More convicts, longer terms

The state data obtained by The New Orleans Advocate do not break down by parish how many convicts are serving prison time on violent versus nonviolent offenses.

But they indicate that more New Orleans convicts are doing longer prison stints, contributing an outsized share to the state's huge and aging inmate population.

Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said 4,823 Louisiana inmates are serving life sentences without parole. More than one in five, or about 1,070 lifers, come from Orleans Parish, LeBlanc said.

Cannizzaro's office also leads the state in invoking the state's habitual-offender law, sending away far more inmates under the statute than any other DA. That law allows prosecutors almost complete discretion to ratchet up prison terms based on a defendant's prior convictions, going up to 20 years to life on a fourth felony offense.

New Orleans, with less than 10 percent of the state's population, now accounts for 29 percent of the 2,645 state inmates who are serving 20 years after being sentenced under the repeat-offender law, the data show.

Cannizzaro's frequent use of that law raises the stakes for many defendants facing allegations from a DA's Office that accepts criminal charges against 85 percent of felony arrestees, on average.

That pace of prosecution, which has drawn pointed criticism from the City Council, far exceeds the rates of Cannizzaro's predecessors, former DAs Harry Connick and Eddie Jordan.

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The result has been that a far greater share of people arrested for felonies in New Orleans are ultimately convicted than in the past.

And felony convicts from New Orleans land in prison at far higher rates than those convicted elsewhere — in part because of a host of state laws that bar probation for certain repeat criminals.

According to data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, about one-third of all people convicted of felonies in Louisiana in 2015 were sentenced to prison, with two-thirds handed probation. In Orleans Parish, about half of convicted felons get prison time, Metropolitan Crime Commission data show.

"I'd say the difference is in the backgrounds of the offenders," said MCC President Rafael Goyeneche, who counts himself a Cannizzaro supporter. "If we want to see less people in the penitentiary, we're going to have to do something to reduce the crime rate."

Building good cases

In an interview, Cannizzaro defended his case acceptance rate and said he has actually slowed the office’s use of the habitual-offender law

"I can tell you, when I served as a judge, Mr. Connick's office did file the multiple bill in about 99.9 percent of the cases. We do not do that,” Cannizzaro said. “We do not use the multiple bill in every case.

"If we think a judge is going to give a (low) sentence that we absolutely have a problem with, then we may come in and say, ‘Look, judge, we’re going to use the multiple bill in this case where otherwise we might not do it.’ "

Even so, one in four convicts sent into the state prison system from Orleans Parish in 2015 got there via a habitual-offender sentence. That’s five times the statewide rate, data show. 

Cannizzaro argued that his high case-acceptance rate is a result of a vigorous screening process in which prosecutors are asked to call witnesses and help build winnable cases, rather than deciding whether to prosecute based solely on an initial police report.

"We don’t have a goal, and that’s I think a big misunderstanding. I don’t go tell the person who’s in charge of case management, 'I want you to accept 100 percent of the cases or 80 percent of the cases,' " Cannizzaro said.

"There's no quota system. There never has been. You can’t do that in criminal justice. We’re trying to do the right thing in each and every case. We refuse quite a few cases.”

Cannizzaro's office did, however, set a 90 percent goal for accepting domestic violence cases when it filed a grant application in January to fund a full-time prosecutor for those cases.

The DA's Office said it planned to use the money to screen 500 domestic violence cases and to accept 450 of them for prosecution.

'We're not any safer'

Williams, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Cannizzaro for the DA's post in 2008, said such policies result in a "manufactured acceptance rate."

"This is clearly a trend which we can only describe as their habit. This is their policy," Williams said. "They cannot say that they're doing a better screening job. I would venture to say they are not screening cases. They are just accepting cases."

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Williams argued that the DA's reliance on the habitual-offender law is "an abuse" and a relic of a failed war on drugs.

"Doing that today is flying in the face of a smarter criminal justice system," Williams argued. "A lot of these felony convictions are low-level drug abusers who are getting double-digit (prison terms). We're not any safer than we were. By and large, too many people that none of us are scared of are getting large prison terms."

Whether Cannizzaro ultimately employs it or not, his reputation for unleashing the habitual-offender law is a strong lever for prying guilty pleas from defendants, said defense attorney Greg Thompson, an Orleans Parish prosecutor until 2011.

"It's kind of assumed it's going to happen: 'If your guy doesn't take the deal, we're going to launch him if he goes to trial,' " Thompson said. "It has a massive effect on pleas."

Cannizzaro's rate of accepting felony arrests for prosecution hit 86 percent in 2014 and has edged up further since then, according to MCC data.

That's more than 10 percentage points above the average for prosecutors in the nation's 75 most populous counties, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics figures from 2009, the most recent national data available.

The share of felony arrests that lead to felony convictions under Cannizzaro's watch has held steady at between 42 and 45 percent — a historical high-water mark for the Orleans Parish criminal justice system.

But that conviction rate is about 10 percentage points lower than that of typical big-city prosecutors nationally.

Goyeneche pointed to a key, and perhaps surprising, difference from prosecutors in other big cities: Cannizzaro downgrades nearly one in four felony arrests to misdemeanors, double the national average.

Nearly half of those downgrades come at the front end, when the DA accepts charges, MCC data show.

Similar to national trend

Goyeneche believes Cannizzaro does that mainly because New Orleans police have a habit of overbooking suspects, particularly in theft, drug and battery cases.

He also noted that while total felony arrests have declined, arrests for violent felonies have risen in recent years. They now make up a far greater share of the cases that wend their way through the city's justice system.

"What you're seeing in New Orleans is very, very similar to the national trend with respect to prosecutors around the country," Goyeneche said.

Serpas argued that judging Cannizzaro against his predecessors in New Orleans misses the mark.

"The DA is being hammered for political reasons for doing exactly what he said he wanted to do: better reports, better prosecutions, better outcomes," Serpas said. "To turn around now and say, because he does more work than Harry Connick and Eddie Jordan — the (football) analogy is, 'We don't want you to be Belichick and Brady; we want to compare you to the '60s Detroit Lions.' "

A state task force this month is expected to recommend a package of proposals to the Legislature that would target the state's high incarceration rate, LeBlanc said. Among the ideas: expanding probation eligibility, expanding state parole eligibility and reducing the portion of a sentence that convicts must ultimately serve.

But while sentencing reforms may temper the kind of long prison terms that help make Orleans Parish the leading producer of state inmates, judgment calls by prosecutors remain a major factor in driving incarceration rates in the U.S., according to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied prosecutors’ charging decisions.

“They have complete discretion about who to charge and who not to charge,” Pfaff said of prosecutors. “Their commitment is to justice, and justice is not enforcing the law every single time it is broken.”

The choice of whether to invoke habitual-offender laws, Pfaff said, is “one of those areas where discretion is hugely important.”

Pfaff argues that habitual-offender laws are particularly misguided because by the time an offender has racked up enough past charges to face the higher sentences, he often is older and starting to "age out" of prime crime-committing years.

“A prosecutor in a more violent city will certainly need to act differently than elsewhere, but long punitive sentences will not solve the problem,” Pfaff said. “There’s very little evidence that long sentences have any deterrent effect.”

Staff writers Jeff Adelson, Jim Mustian and Matt Sledge contributed to this report.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.