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Outgoing Superintendent Michael Harrison says goodbye to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro after the swearing in ceremony for the new New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson in front of Gallier Hall in New Orleans, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Tuesday railed against the city’s push to reduce its jail population, calling it an “ill conceived” social experiment that will hurt residents’ quality of life if it continues unabated. 

While Cannizzaro has been tight-lipped about whether he plans to seek a third term in office in 2020, his remarks at the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s annual awards luncheon cut a stark contrast with the one candidate who has already declared that he will be seeking the district attorney’s job, City Council President Jason Williams.

Williams, a defense attorney, watched Cannizzaro’s 20-minute speech Tuesday at the Sheraton Hotel and dismissed it as “fear mongering” laced with ideas that have not proved capable of making New Orleans safe.

Cannizzaro assailed various aspects of the local justice system, saying the number of juvenile felony cases his office has chosen to accept has increased as police arrests for curfew and truancy violations have dropped over the years.

Additionally, he said political pressure on Juvenile Court judges to keep the population of detainees at the Youth Study Center low has resulted in repeat offenders cycling through it at “cartoonish speed.”

He alluded to a pair of teens who had been quickly released after being arrested in possession of two guns and a ski mask — only to be rearrested hours later on allegations that they pistol-whipped a man during a robbery.

He also launched a fresh salvo at another favorite target of his: bail amounts in adult court that he contends are too low and so facilitate the speedy return of dangerous criminals to the street.

To buttress that point, Cannizzaro recounted how a suspected marijuana dealer out on $3,500 bail skipped required court appearances and was caught on video beating and mugging a tourist from Arizona. Another case he cited involved a man who was accused of raping a longtime friend as she slept on his couch and is now out on $5,000 bail.

Cannizzaro expressed disgust that both defendants had been bailed out by members of an organization called the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund, co-founded by Joshua Cox, a senior adviser to Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

Cannizzaro said his office contributed to the 47-year low in homicides that New Orleans registered in 2018 both by convicting numerous killers and by running a pretrial diversion program that helps participants avoid committing new crimes. Yet the strides New Orleans has made in reducing homicides can be undone if incarceration reduction efforts benefit most of those currently awaiting trial in the city’s jail, many of whom are accused of serious crimes rather than low-level offenses, Cannizzaro said.

In 2015, Cannizzaro signed onto a grant application for a study aimed at reducing the jail population. But he turned into a critic of the project after the District Attorney’s Office was cut out of the grant award.

“When I see public safety being imperiled by ill-conceived policy decisions and social experiments, I … tend to speak my mind,” said Cannizzaro, New Orleans’ top prosecutor since 2008. “The silent majority of New Orleans residents who are concerned about their safety can no longer wait to speak up. We need caring citizens, we need business leaders, we need influential donors and we especially need voters to start raising your voices in defense of rational policy decisions, public safety and common sense.”

Cannizzaro added that he believed some officials were “experimenting on us as a society to determine how much more violent crime we are willing to tolerate in (order) for them to boast of lower incarceration.”

“Look, I absolutely want to see fewer people locked up in New Orleans and throughout our state,” Cannizzaro continued. “But we must get there because fewer people are committing crimes, not because of some grand social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naïve politicians.”

Cannizzaro declined to discuss his 2020 plans when a reporter asked him whether he delivered his speech with a re-election campaign in mind.

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Councilmember-at-large Jason Rogers Williams listens to public comment about Short Term Rentals at City Hall's City Council Chambers in New Orleans, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. ORG XMIT: BAT1901101713418574

Approached for his reaction to Cannizzaro’s speech, Williams said New Orleans was a dangerous, violent place even when its inmate population was twice as large at the start of this decade.

“It is clear from empirical data and the history of New Orleans (that) locking everyone up and keeping them there is erroneous and wrong-minded,” said Williams, who announced in the fall that he would run for district attorney. “The fear-mongering that has ruled our criminal justice system for a long time has made for a bloated system, whether it’s jail population or the amount we spend on it. And it’s not making us safer.”

New Orleans’ push to reduce its pretrial inmate population accompanied state efforts to reduce Louisiana's world-leading prison population. One common goal was to save money being spent on operating packed jails in favor of redirecting those funds to rehabilitation services.

Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.


Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.