This November, New Orleans residents can begin to turn the page on the failed tough-on-crime era that needlessly punished thousands of our neighbors, separated families, devastated communities, and drained public funds away from investments in housing, education, and public health. Voters will elect a new district attorney, as Leon Cannizzaro is not seeking another term. Under his leadership, the parish jailed witnesses, issued fake subpoenas, and prosecuted children as adults at a record pace.
But electing a new district attorney will not be enough to bring fairness, equality, and justice to the criminal justice system. Voters also have the opportunity to choose who serves as judges in courtrooms in New Orleans. For too long, many of our judges have been complicit in the types of injustices perpetrated during the Cannizzaro era. They are infamous for levying harsh bail amounts and exorbitant fines and fees — keeping people locked in cages simply for being poor — and then handing out some of the harshest sentences in the country. And when there have been opportunities for reform, such as fixing the broken bail or fines and fees systems, some of these judges have fought change at every turn.
Over the past ten years the community has worked hard to overcome excessive incarceration, especially the race- and class-based money bail system. Some of the candidates running for judge have taken notice and done more than merely talk the talk of reform. But most will perpetuate the engrained resistance to change, as shown by their work for the DA or at the bidding of bail bondsmen.
We must determine who has been walking the walk, advocating for our kids and community with the work they have been doing, actively opposing over-incarceration and money bail. If we do, we won’t be the first city to insist that our judges reflect community values of fairness and redefine “law and order.” Two years ago, in the wake of federal litigation against the money bail system — just as we had here in New Orleans — voters in Harris County, Texas elected numerous former defense attorneys as progressive judges. And in a short period these new judges have shown that by not using money bail and locking up fewer people, they could actually save the county money and make the public safer.
New Orleans has spent millions each year to punish people, funneling money away from our communities that so desperately need it. Evidence has shown that genuine criminal justice reform can both save governments considerable amounts of money and do so without risking public safety. But if we only look for judges who have proven to be tough-on-crime prosecutors or tough-on-crime judges, any reform will fall far short of the meaningful change so badly needed in New Orleans.
former city councilmember and Criminal Justice Committee chairperson