New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro got a chilly reception Thursday at the City Council as members hammered him about what steps his office is taking to keep juveniles and nonviolent drug offenders out of the parish jail.
In a hearing on his office’s budget for 2016, council members called on Cannizzaro to make a more concerted effort to ensure youths are kept in the juvenile justice system — and out of the jail — and to work to persuade judges to allow drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals to be released without bail.
Those steps have been proposed as ways to more humanely deal with young and low-level offenders and to reduce the size and cost of the jail’s inmate population.
“We need to step back and see if we’re doing what is most effective,” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who heads the council’s Criminal Justice Committee.
Cannizzaro defended his policies, though he said he would take the council’s views into consideration.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s budget proposes giving about $6.7 million in city funds to the District Attorney’s Office next year. Counting state funding and other sources of revenue, the office’s total budget is about $12 million.
Much of the discussion Thursday focused on young offenders and whether they should be prosecuted through the traditional courts or through the juvenile justice system.
On Wednesday, council members had expressed support for expanding the Youth Study Center instead of adding another jail building and for getting all young offenders out of the adult jail.
Activists argue that putting youths in with adult prisoners can lead to assaults and other types of abuse as well as quickly turning them into hardened criminals.
Council members also said that using the juvenile justice system and facilities is cheaper than the traditional courts and jail.
About 25 juvenile inmates are now being held in the jail, the Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.
Cannizzaro said he prosecutes juveniles through their own system except in cases of violent crimes or second-offense burglaries, which he described as rare occurrences.
“I have a responsibility to file a charge if I think a charge should be filed,” he said.
The traditional court system is also better for some prosecutions, he said. “Sometimes it gets a little bit more businesslike in the adult-like courts than in the juvenile system,” he said.
“It gets a lot more adult-like in that jail, and that’s the problem,” Councilman Jason Williams said.
The council’s scrutiny of Cannizzaro is closely tied to its ongoing disputes with Sheriff Marlin Gusman about the proper size for the new jail. Beyond the philosophical issues at play, Landrieu’s administration and many members of the council have argued that incarcerating fewer inmates in a smaller jail would free significant sums of money that could be used elsewhere in the city.
The Sheriff’s Office is expected to argue over its 2016 budget with the council on Tuesday at the last scheduled hearing before the budget is put up for a vote Thursday.
“We need help from all the departments and agencies to do things in a way so we can err on the side of judicial economy as much as possible,” Williams said.
The District Attorney’s Office should also allow more people who are arrested on nonviolent drug offenses to be released without bail, both as a cost-cutting measure and to prevent them from being incarcerated just because they can’t pay, said Williams, a private defense attorney.
Cannizzaro said those decisions are up to the judges and his office could do little to change their opinions. For drug offenders, release should come in concert with counseling, testing and other requirements, he said.
There needs to be enough space in the jail to house all offenders once the Police Department recovers from its current manpower woes and is able to step up the number of arrests it makes, Cannizzaro said.
“When your Police Department comes up to snuff and starts arresting more guys, we have to have space for them. We don’t want them out on the street,” he said.
Guidry also admonished Cannizzaro for giving 4 percent raises to his staff this year, despite the council’s refusal to approve money for them last fall. That left the city having to fund those retroactively, she said.
“In January 2015, you kind of flipped us off and gave your employees a 4 percent raise and then came back and asked us to pay for it,” Guidry said.
“I did it because, as I told you, I have a situation where I want to keep the good people in that office,” Cannizzaro said.
“So does the public defender. So does the sheriff. So does the Police Department,” Guidry retorted.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.