New Orleans judge orders release of seven inmates charged with serious felonies because of lack of money for defense, but men will remain jailed pending an appeal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court on Tulane Ave. and Broad Street is seen in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.

New Orleans criminal justice system leaders are in line for a boost in funding next year under the budget proposed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, but as officials discussed their spending plans before the City Council on Tuesday, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro once again faced a volley of questions over his office's policies.

Cannizzaro, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison and Criminal District Court judges found a mostly receptive audience as they discussed the amounts the administration proposes to give them in 2019.

But council members questioned some policies, including plans by the Police Department to use state laws to raise fines for traffic offenses as well as some controversial practices employed by the District Attorney's Office that continue to rankle council members.

The district attorney, who has waged a two-year war with city leaders over $600,000 in annual cuts they imposed, starting with the 2017 budget, in response to his policies, would see that funding restored under Cantrell's proposed budget.

Criminal court judges would gain $3.2 million to plug a hole in their budget created by a pair of federal court decisions that limit the collection of fines and fees from indigent defendants.

Meanwhile, the NOPD would gain $11.7 million as it strains to hire more officers and pay them better.

Cannizzaro’s appearance before the council a year ago produced a flurry of recriminations between the district attorney, who said the council was putting public safety at risk, and council members, who said he was pursuing regressive policies.

This year, Cannizzaro once again lamented what he described as chronic underfunding of his office. 

Low salaries, he said, have resulted in high staff turnover as prosecutors move to more lucrative and less voluminous work. The number of assistant district attorneys has declined, and senior prosecutors in his office now average a little more than two years of experience, he said.

Cannizzaro also cited figures showing that, with a recent pay increase for police officers, his starting prosecutors make less than rookie cops.

“The funding is about trying to keep very qualified, skilled and experienced personnel in the office,” he said.

Council members had few questions about his staff's size, but they zeroed in on controversial policies like transferring juvenile defendants to adult court, the use of habitual-offender laws to ratchet up sentences and the treatment of witnesses.

After sending nine juveniles to adult court in 2016, Cannizzaro’s office sent 23 last year, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said.

“It is because of the larger number of arrests made by the police with regard to those types of charges,” Cannizzaro replied.

His juvenile transfer rate, he said, is about 50 percent — that is, about half of eligible juveniles are moved to adult court.

Council President Jason Williams, who has already expressed his intention to run for district attorney in 2020, asked Cannizzaro if he has curtailed his office’s use of material-witness warrants to arrest victims and witnesses and hold them in jail to ensure they will be available to testify at trials.

“That discretion is exercised very, very rarely,” Cannizzaro said of the warrants.

Meanwhile, Cannizzaro said his office has scaled back its use of Louisiana’s habitual-offender law, which at a prosecutor’s discretion can increase mandatory minimum sentences for defendants with prior felony convictions. Cannizzaro’s office uses the law more than any other district attorney's office in Louisiana, an analysis found last year.

The Criminal District Court would see a far bigger budget boost under Cantrell’s budget, to a total of $6.3 million in city funding.

Chief Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson said that money is needed because a pair of August decisions from federal judges have “pretty much crippled the court from allowing us to have any outside revenue.”

While this year's budget included $1.6 million from court costs and bail fees, next year's budget assumes the court will have zero dollars in collections because of the court decisions.

The federal judges said their state counterparts had an unconstitutional conflict of interest in imposing the court costs and bail fees on mostly poor defendants to balance their budget.

Landrum-Johnson said the judges are appealing those decisions, but she added that the judges "understand that we cannot fund the system on the backs of poor people.”

Beyond filling the hole in collections, the new money from the city will support a pay raise for court staffers, a new manager for domestic violence cases and nearly $200,000 for foreign-language interpreters.

Harrison received more praise than resistance as he presented his proposed $190 million NOPD budget — a $12 million increase — to the council.

He pointed to figures showing the first signs of success in beefing up the force since the NOPD resumed hiring officers in 2013 after a lengthy freeze.

Manpower now stands at 1,223 sworn officers — up from about 1,170 over the past few years, according to NOPD figures. A steep decline in officers leaving the force, rather than a quicker pace of hiring, was the reason given.

Meanwhile, Harrison set a lower target for reaching optimal police manpower. Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu had pledged to get to 1,600 sworn officers, but Harrison said the right level looks to be between 1,385 and 1,485 cops.

That's because the department has taken steps to shift some work to civilians and to automate some reporting of crimes that are not emergencies, Harrison said. The city also recently hired a third-party contractor to handle minor traffic accidents.

Still, Harrison faced criticism over his plans to beef up traffic enforcement in the city and to cite violators of traffic laws under state laws that call for heftier fines than allowed by local laws.

Councilwoman Helena Moreno balked at that, noting that state fines are often double or triple the amount of municipal ones for the same offense.

“I really am concerned we’re moving away from … a positive pattern, to a policy where we’re now charging people on these higher tickets,” Moreno said.

Later, Harrison said the NOPD has “the capacity to pull the department into full compliance” with the mandates of a six-year-old federal consent decree by early next year.

He said NOPD brass are scheduled to meet next week with federal monitors to determine what's left to fulfill of the massive slate of reforms that Landrieu agreed to in 2012.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.