Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has reversed a 4-year-old policy of funneling state misdemeanor cases to Municipal Court and has started sending them to Criminal District Court in response to a recent cut in city funding for his office.
Cannizzaro's office on Tuesday began shipping all new state misdemeanor cases to the criminal courthouse, sparking predictions of increased delays in felony cases and longer jail stints for many low-level offenders.
New Orleans police and other agencies arrest thousands of people in the city each year on state misdemeanor charges of prostitution, domestic violence and misdemeanor gun counts. Hundreds of summonses also are issued for those and other minor state offenses.
The move follows a decision last month by the City Council to reduce Cannizzaro's budget by $600,000, the result of a disagreement over policies that include the DA's frequent transfer of eligible juvenile suspects to adult court and his high felony case acceptance rate.
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The reduction marked a nearly 10 percent cut in the city's previous $6.7 million contribution to the DA's annual budget. The city money goes in large part to supplement pay for prosecutors who receive a $45,000 base salary from the state.
The DA's Office has said it also is pulling its investigators from homicide scenes.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, said it could no longer afford to keep prosecutors assigned to Municipal Court, where the City Attorney's Office handles municipal code violations.
"We had to shrink our footprint. When we moved over to Municipal Court, we didn't get extra resources to do that. We thinned our resources in other places. It was doable then," Bowman said.
"Now with this cut, it's no longer doable. We can no longer afford to prosecute in two courts."
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, which runs a pre-trial services program in New Orleans, about 3,500 people are arrested annually on state misdemeanors, along with around 600 who are issued summonses for those offenses.
Figures from the Metropolitan Crime Commission show that 2,960 misdemeanor cases were brought to Criminal District Court in 2011, the year before Cannizzaro moved the vast bulk of them across Gravier Street to Municipal Court. That compares with a felony docket of about 2,350 cases in the criminal court as of Oct. 1.
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At the time, Cannizzaro argued that the misdemeanors could be resolved more efficiently in Municipal Court, while freeing up the 12 criminal court judges to focus on more serious felonies.
And by most accounts, the shift was successful.
"We did see some improvements in outcomes for cases, because we created diversionary programs in conjunction with the District Attorney's Office," Bunton said. "Cases were moving a little differently and faster without harming some of the justice we want to see done."
Bunton said he doesn't understand the decision to upend the arrangement.
"When the move was made four years ago, it was seen as an efficiency and cost-saving measure. I'm a little confused on why it was cost-saving in 2012, and now (ending it) is cost-cutting in 2016," he said.
Daniel Engelberg, chief of trials in Bunton's office, said the office is "definitely seeing more pretrial detention on misdemeanors in the last week."
MCC President Rafael Goyeneche described the DA's response as a regrettable but necessary byproduct of short-sighted city budget cuts.
Goyeneche noted that the council funded increases for the Police Department and the Public Defenders Office, anticipating a rise in felony arrests.
"It's penny-wise and pound-foolish," he said. "It's going to take even longer, and the court is going to have less time to devote to the felony cases. It's going to cost more money to house the jailed offenders, and it's going to slow down the entire process."
Vera Institute Director Jon Wool pointed to key differences in how those cases are handled in Municipal Court, where defendants are promptly arraigned based on a law enforcement affidavit and their cases often are resolved immediately, avoiding jail time.
In criminal court, screeners from the DA's Office can take a month or more to file charges.
"It's an enormous difference," Wool said. "There's going to be some group of people who can't make the bail at whatever amount and so stay in jail a lot longer before they have an opportunity to resolve their case."
Some of the more than 800 people who are issued summonses each year on state misdemeanor charges may now be taken into custody instead, Wool said.
"Criminal District Court has no mechanism to receive cases by summons. Those cases will now become custodial arrests, presumably. There are people who will be spending time in jail that they otherwise would not have," Wool said.
Wool said nearly all state misdemeanors have a corollary in the municipal code, and a collaboration with law enforcement could avert some of the projected troubles.
The news of the shift left Municipal Court Chief Judge Desiree Charbonnet fearing it could undermine a pre-trial diversion program she launched a few years ago that helps scores of women arrested on prostitution charges.
Charbonnet said participants who opt for the Crossroads program are released on their own recognizance and report to a local group, Women with a Vision, for counseling, with the charges dismissed upon completion.
"What we've learned over the years is that individuals who participate have generally experienced trauma in their lives. There's some drug abuse as well. They've really become more like victims in this human trafficking, prostitution, sex trade (market)," she said.
It was unclear how many of the 87 participants in the program this year were charged with state misdemeanors rather than municipal violations, which will remain in Municipal Court.
This story has been updated to include revised data from the Vera Institute of Justice on annual average arrests and summonses for state misdemeanors in New Orleans.