New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry won support from fellow council members at a hearing Wednesday for a resolution she has proposed that is designed to see fewer juvenile defendants’ cases transferred from Juvenile Court to Criminal District Court.
The man at whom the resolution was aimed was nowhere to be seen, but earlier he had vehemently denounced the idea.
Guidry’s resolution is a response to a longtime practice of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. An analysis done last year by The New Orleans Advocate found that Cannizzaro’s office transferred nearly 90 percent of defendants aged 15 and 16 who were arrested for armed robbery to the adult court, a proportion far higher than other Louisiana jurisdictions.
Cannizzaro declined to attend the hearing of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee and didn’t send anyone from his office to represent him.
But on Monday, he sent Guidry an eight-page letter that was strongly critical of her resolution, calling it “impulsive and quite frankly dangerous.”
In his letter, Cannizzaro said he doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to successfully rehabilitate teenagers charged with violent crimes. He also accused Guidry of trying to rewrite state law and threatening to reduce his office’s budget, a charge that she addressed in her introduction to the hearing.
“We’re not telling him what to do or threaten his funding,” Guidry said. Instead, she said, the resolution is “an expression of the desire of the City Council” to look more closely at the practice of trying 15- and 16-year-olds in Criminal District Court.
“It simply asks that the DA look at his transfer practice and implement a rigorous and comprehensive screening process,” she said, noting that state law already calls for such a process for 14-year-olds. That process looks at a child’s broader circumstances and abilities and determines that transfer is the right option only when there is no chance of rehabilitation within the juvenile system, Guidry said.
A dozen experts, ranging from Juvenile and Criminal Court judges to psychologists and victims advocates, testified during the four-hour hearing of the Criminal Justice Committee, which Guidry chairs.
In the end, Council President Jason Williams asked that the committee not vote yet on the resolution to give council members time to negotiate with Cannizzaro.
“I wholeheartedly support your resolution. It should have been in place years ago,” Williams said. “But this is too important to not get some commitment from the DA’s Office.”
Councilmember Nadine Ramsey, who seconded Williams’ motion, concurred with his overall assessment. “As elected officials, I think we have a duty to go that extra mile,” she said. “And (Cannizzaro) has the responsibility to work with us as a partner.”
Guidry’s data came largely from a report, titled “More Harm Than Good,” released earlier this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which outlined the harm it said is done to teens who are transferred to adult courts and held in adult jails and prisons.
The report, which cited a growing body of evidence that transferred teens are more likely to commit further crimes once released, concluded that “Cannizzaro’s use of default transfer is unfair and ineffective. It fails to protect public safety, conserve public dollars or respond appropriately to juvenile crime.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center report found that about 40 percent of teens transferred in Orleans Parish don’t face long sentences even when they are transferred. Instead, the young defendants are placed on probation, their cases are dismissed or they are found not guilty — meaning they then return home without getting a mental health assessment or any needed services.
Meredith Angelson, who testified on behalf of the center, questioned whether many of the defendants, who ended up pleading guilty to lesser crimes, should have been transferred from Juvenile Court in the first place.
Guidry said that while she is not threatening the district attorney’s budget, there are budget impacts whichever policy is adopted. If the resolution passes and — as hoped — reduces the number of transfers, “it would affect how we fund Juvenile Court and other parts of the system,” she said.