Sometimes, polite conventions just seem awkward.
Take, for instance, the letter Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro wrote to New Orleans City Council member Susan Guidry last week. His sign-off — “With kindest regards, I remain, Sincerely” — brings you up with a jolt, for he has just spent eight pages ripping into her with considerable feeling.
That Cannizzaro had taken offense could not have come as a surprise to Guidry, because her clear intent was to embarrass him into running his office the way she wants. She had prepared a resolution urging him to institute a “rigorous and comprehensive screening process” with a view to trying fewer juveniles in adult court.
Guidry leads the council’s committee on criminal justice, but it is obvious from the letter that Cannizzaro, a judge for many years before he took up prosecuting, does not think that makes her an authority on the subject. He declined to attend a hearing on the resolution Wednesday, which was a pity because nobody present seemed able to say what constituted armed robbery.
Although the council cannot tell a state elected official what to do, it does have a role in determining Cannizzaro’s budget. Thus, Guidry’s resolution says that if he doesn’t come to heel, the council may “exercise its oversight role in ensuring the appropriate use of public money.” Guidry said at the hearing that she wasn’t threatening to yank some of the district attorney’s money, but it is impossible to give the words on the page any other meaning. It is not an idea likely to meet the approval of citizens in the middle of a crime wave.
District attorneys may, at their discretion, transfer certain serious juvenile cases to criminal court, which has the power to impose much harsher sentences. Juveniles cannot be given a prison term that lasts beyond their 21st birthday, but a 16-year-old convicted of murder in criminal court, for instance, will live out his days in the grown-up pen and die there.
According to Guidry’s resolution, the juvenile system also offers a better shot at rehabilitation, although Cannizzaro says experience suggests it ain’t necessarily so in Orleans Parish.
It may be that Guidry is correct in alleging that Cannizzaro ships too many kids off to criminal court, for sometimes outsiders will recognize flaws that escape the pros. After spending pretty much his entire adult life in criminal justice, Cannizzaro may be too quick to dismiss what he regards as dilettante opinion.
He will continue to disdain Guidry, however, so long as he thinks she mangles the facts, and his letter in various places lambastes her for doing so. Not only is the “screening process” called for in the resolution already in place, he says, but Guidry has rejected repeated invitations to see it in action. It is admittedly unlikely that Guidry would find Cannizzaro’s process sufficiently rigorous.
The resolution accuses Cannizzaro of transferring “80 percent of eligible 15- and 16-year-olds” to adult court — proof enough, as he points out, that screening is in place. But the number is wrong, anyway. He says he transfers 80 percent of alleged murderers, rapists and armed robbers, but his policy is to leave other transfer-eligible defendants, facing somewhat less serious charges, in juvenile court. According to testimony at Wednesday’s hearing on the resolution, however, the cases he leaves in juvenile court are not numerous enough to skew the percentages much.
A succession of experts from Louisiana and beyond appeared at Wednesday’s hearing to rehearse the various dire consequences of transferring juveniles to adult court.
This was hardly surprising, because it was Guidry’s show, but it seems unlikely that they were just do-gooders talking through their hats. It would appear that throwing kids in with the old offenders increases the chances that they will commit more crimes down the road and that all of society would benefit if prosecutors made more allowance for immature brains. The resolution duly passed. It says Cannizzaro “should” report back on his progress in screening juvenile offenders by the end of the year, and, presumably, he will resist any temptation to snub the council.
Nobody doubts that some criminals are too dangerous to release at 21. But it also seems clear that plenty more are being transferred to adult court when the juvenile system would have served them, and us, better. This could all be resolved with a little goodwill, but we need to work on that.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.