The New Orleans City Council is pushing District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to stop jailing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault on warrants aimed at ensuring they testify at trials.
Blasting the practice as “barbaric” and “misogynistic,” council members said at Thursday's meeting that jailing victims is a dangerous and cruel practice that reopens the trauma of the crime and has critically damaged trust in the city’s criminal justice system.
“At the end of the day, jailing innocent victims just sends the message to these victims that the criminal justice system isn’t here to protect you. It's maybe even here to cause you deeper harm,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said.
The council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the practice, and council members pledged to work with state lawmakers to try to prohibit it with legislation in the upcoming session.
Advocacy groups have been raising an outcry for years over what are known as “material witness warrants,” which the District Attorney’s Office can use to jail people important to a case in order to ensure they show up for the trial.
While the practice is not limited to cases of sexual abuse or domestic violence, council members and advocates have been particularly appalled by its application to those victims.
The group Court Watch NOLA, which has taken the lead on the issue, found 10 victims who were jailed in 2016 or 2017 and 18 other cases where the district attorney sought to have a victim arrested who could not be found by police.
“When someone, who has already been robbed of their sense of normalcy, is then punished and jailed by the person who is supposed to protect them, that only further aggravates that trauma,” said Councilman Jason Williams, who has announced he will be running for district attorney in 2020.
Cannizzaro did not attend Thursday's council meeting, but he fired back at a news conference later in the day where he railed against Williams for the "theater" that he said was based on "stale" and "disingenuous" allegations.
"We would prosecute every case without imposing on the victim or critical witness to come to court if that were possible, but it's not," Cannizzaro said.
According to the DA's Office, 28 people were taken into custody on material witness warrants in the last five years, and none has been jailed since early 2017. It was not clear how many of those people were victims and how many were witnesses, but Cannizzaro said 21 were in cases involving murder or attempted murder and two were connected to cases involving sex crimes.
Canizzaro said if the council were to succeed in banning the practice, it would create problems for prosecuting cases and could allow dangerous offenders to be freed.
"If it were to become state law, it would embolden sex offenders and domestic abusers to intimidate, threaten and harass their victims into avoiding courtroom testimony," he said. "Once again it appears the City Council has proven more adept at grandstanding over concocted problems than actually solving critical ones."
But council members said that jailing even one victim is one too many.
“This is for the sake of winning a case," Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said. "Do we really need to have that win in that column at the expense of an innocent victim?”