OPINION | A tale of two DAs: Reimagining criminal justice in New Orleans

Zachary Schultz, Contributing Writer

Courtesy of www.runwithjason.com

In 2008, the voters of Orleans Parish elected Judge Leon A. Cannizzaro, Jr., as their new district attorney, signaling public support for a chief prosecutor willing and prepared to crack down on crime. On the night of his campaign kickoff, the DA-hopeful addressed a room filled with his energized, enthusiastic supporters and proclaimed in an emphatic, resolute voice: “I am declaring war on the criminal element of the city of New Orleans.” 

While this declaration seems out of place in the present moment — a post-Black Lives Matter world that has witnessed a wholesale push for reform in the sphere of policing and prosecuting — Cannizzaro’s rhetoric reflected the public’s appetite for change in 2008. This push came on the heels of the widespread political corruption and spike in crime that engulfed New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This tidal wave captured then-DA Eddie Jordan in its path and led to his eventual resignation, which paved the path for a special election in which Cannizzaro emerged as the experienced and responsible tough-on-crime candidate. 

Once Cannizzaro took the oath of office, he went straight to fulfilling his central campaign promises, and oversaw the successful prosecutions of alleged murders, rapists, pedophiles and otherwise despicable offenders. 

When Cannizzaro announced he would not seek a third term in office in 2020, he touted some of his greatest accomplishments, which included “taking more than 700 New Orleans killers off the street and dismantling numerous street gangs.”  According to one of Cannizzaro’s long-time political consultants, his decision not to seek a third term came, at least in part, from his recognition that the public’s desire for a tough-on-crime prosecutor had waned, and was replaced with an opposing vision an empathetic chief prosecutor committed to criminal justice reform. 

This new-age DA candidate came in the form of Jason Williams, the president of the New Orleans City Council, who had been among Cannizzaro’s harshest critics. Williams led an anti-Cannizzaro push on the council which slashed the DA’s budget and scolded its prosecutors for issuing “fake subpoenas” and committing other dubious practices.

 Although Cannizzaro opted not to run, his absence from the 2020 DA’s race did not make it less contentious than its 2008 predecessor. The race saw two Tulane Law School alumni   Williams and Judge Keva Landrum battle it out for the powerful office. In the end, Williams prevailed, an outcome that came from embracing his lack of prosecutorial experience and painting his opponent, who prior to serving as judge in criminal district court had served as a prosecutor and interim-DA, as another Cannizzaro. 

Similar to Cannizzaro’s speech in 2008, Williams took to the podium on election night 2020 to declare war before his supporters, though the target of this war was not “the criminal element of New Orleans,” but rather on the office that put those criminals in prison; the office he would now lead. In that speech, Williams declared: “The fight to undo 300 years of backwards thinking … the fistfight has just begun” and promised to bring new prosecutors into the office who would not be of the same mold as those who served in the Cannizzaro administration.

At the core of Williams’ platform is the effort to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, which has seen juveniles tried as adults, a practice designed to send juveniles convicted of committing more serious offences — rapes, murders and armed robberies — to adult prisons for longer periods of time.

It is true that 2020 is a much different time in New Orleans, and the nation as a whole, than 2008. As a civilization, many have come to better understand the inequities present in the criminal justice system and have been exposed to the intrinsic biases infecting that system, which often leads to a disproportionate allocation of punishment along racial lines. Perhaps, then, it is time for a prosecutor willing to take drastic measures to ensure a more balanced system of justice.

 Regrettably, Williams, although well-positioned to make substantial strides in the realm of criminal justice reform in New Orleans, is not the reform-minded DA the city desperately needs. Williams’ tenure as DA is expected to be brief, as the new DA seems to be operating on borrowed time. He is set to face trial in federal court on 11 counts of alleged tax-related crimes. If convicted on just one of these felony counts, Williams would immediately be forced to resign his elected office and could face potential jail time. What’s more, the government has a 97% conviction rate when it comes to tax-related offenses, which would instill gloom in even the most ardent optimist with respect to Mr. Williams’ chances of emerging from his trial unscathed. 

The national disgrace that befalls an electorate after it propels a candidate into public office who thereafter suffers a public fall from grace is not new to New Orleans. Within the past decade, numerous public officials in Orleans Parish have landed in federal prison, including former Mayor of New Orleans C. Ray Nagin and former U.S. Congressman William Jefferson. Despite the similarities, Williams’ case is slightly more unique in that his alleged maleficence occurred prior to his being elected and thus was public knowledge. Even still, Williams is poised to continue this embarrassing trend, and his conviction could have the unfortunate consequence of disgracing his supporters and discouraging other candidates from embracing similar reform-minded initiatives in the near future.