New Orleans residents keep reporting more crime, while a depleted police force continues to make fewer arrests. But chances are better that felony bookings will end with convictions and jail time for the defendants, according to a report released Wednesday by the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The MCC’s annual “Criminal Justice System Accountability Report” credits a tag-team effort by the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office for bringing more felony suspects to justice.
Historically, the two agencies worked in “silos,” commission President Rafael Goyeneche said. Police would make an arrest, write up a report and pass it on to prosecutors, who would reject a hefty share of those cases and try the rest with little additional help from police, he said.
The latest numbers, including the share of felony arrests in New Orleans that lead to convictions, show better coordination between the two agencies, Goyeneche said.
Still, he demurred when asked if New Orleanians are any safer.
“I think they can feel more confident that police and prosecutors are more effectively and efficiently utilizing their resources to maximize public safety,” he said. “That’s the healthy takeaway. But there’s still some room for improvement.”
The latest figures show that reported crimes continued to rise in 2013, with robberies, rapes and thefts all increasing.
Total reports of violent crimes and property offenses entered into the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report system rose 5 percent from 2012, though property crimes made up the bulk of the increase. Thefts took a particularly sharp rise, increasing 10 percent from 2012.
Meanwhile, New Orleans saw a 2 percent increase in population, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, which pegged the city’s population last year at 378,715.
At the same time, the report showed that arrests fell across the board, from felony arrests to traffic busts to low-grade out-of-parish warrants, a bugaboo for the commission, which calls those arrests a waste of officers’ time.
The report links the 12 percent slide in arrests in 2013 to a continuing slump in NOPD manpower. Felony arrests, the report said, have declined every year since 2010, while NOPD manpower has shrunk by 20 percent over that span.
The recent launch of a new NOPD academy class — the first of five classes with 150 total recruits the city hopes to field this year — could mark the start of a turnaround. But police manpower has dipped to 1,149, down from 1,546 in 2009 and 1,730 in 2005. NOPD manpower is at a 36-year low, which “absolutely affects arrest numbers,” Goyeneche said.
A report last week by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office offered a different view, suggesting the NOPD squanders the resources it has now by failing to deploy more officers to handle calls for service. NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas rejected that argument, saying Quatrevaux’s report ignored other key aspects of policing.
Serpas on Tuesday attributed the decline in arrests to the decision “to use summonses when appropriate in lieu of arrests. This practice holds people accountable for their actions and allows officers to spend more time patrolling our neighborhoods. ... Our officers use their best discretion to put the right people in jail and will continue to focus their attention on the most dangerous and violent offenders.”
Other notable figures from the report include:
- Cannizzaro’s office declined to prosecute 26 percent of violent offenses, but fewer than one in ten weapons cases.
- Prosecutors had the greatest success with robbery cases from 2012, convicting half of all defendants of a robbery count, and 60 percent of any felony charge. Drug-distribution charges also resulted in high conviction rates.
- More than a third of all suspects who were arrested for murder in New Orleans in 2012 escaped prosecution because Cannizzaro’s office declined to accept the cases or, in some cases, later dismissed them. Those numbers sit far above the national average of 17 percent of murder cases rejected, but well below the numbers for prior district attorneys.
Former District Attorney Eddie Jordan’s office, for instance, rejected half of all murder cases that police brought to the office, according to the MCC.
“Police and prosecutors are working together in ways they never did five years ago,” Goyeneche concluded.
Overall, the report found that Cannizzaro’s office is holding steady with a historically strong record of bringing felony arrests to conviction on felony charges, whether in a guilty plea or at trial.
The office’s 45 percent conviction rate is beginning to approach the national average of 54 percent, the report said. In 2007, the rate in Orleans Parish was 24 percent.
The conviction numbers are for felony arrests made in 2012. Eight percent of those cases — and 11 percent of murder cases — remain ongoing.
Goyeneche also pointed to figures showing that Cannizzaro’s office has eased up a bit on its push to prosecute the vast bulk of arrested suspects.
The DA’s Office accepted 81 percent of the felony and misdemeanor cases that police sent it from 2012 arrests, the report shows, down from 85 percent of arrests in 2011 and 89 percent from 2010.
“You’re seeing more discretion and good judgment used in screening” felony cases, Goyeneche said. “Now they’re screening out the borderline cases.”
In a statement, Cannizzaro said Wednesday’s report “continues to show record progress in the criminal justice system over the course of the last 5 1/2 years.”
He also downplayed the decline in his office’s acceptance rate, saying it “does not make prosecutorial decisions based upon statistics. We judge our success one victim, one case and one defendant at a time.”
The report says 24 percent of felony arrestees received prison sentences. The highest conviction and incarceration rates from felony arrests came in prosecutions of drug and weapons crimes.
The report can be found at www.metrocrime.org.
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