The Metropolitan Crime Commission has issued a new report on the state of New Orleans law enforcement in which there is good news plain for all to see. But there is also some some infuriating news hidden in a barrage of numbers.
The good news is the NOPD has begun focusing on felony arrests. Nonviolent misdemeanor offenders are being issued summonses. These people will have their day in court, but we don’t need to be clogging our jails and occupying the time of beat officers with pot smokers and habitual parking violators. This trend has dropped arrests over the past two years by 45%, and we can credit the 2008 and 2010 City Councils that passed ordinances allowing police this option.
Now for the disturbing news in the numbers… Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro continues to bring felony cases to trial at an astonishing rate. Of the 2010 felony arrests, Cannizzaro attempted to prosecute 89% of them. Of this 89%, 45% were found guilty or plead to another felony (10% of these cases are still open).
Why is this disturbing? An 89% across the board acceptance rate does not, by itself, mean improvement. It just means that Cannizzaro is taking more questionable cases – cases that clog the courts – to boost his numbers. It sounds great to make this claim – but consider the reality of what this means.
Police have to be overly aggressive in the name of public safety. They have to make quick decisions on the street, and can’t take the chance that a bad guy gets away because they didn’t make an arrest on a borderline case. They have to err on the side of caution and protection. Sometimes – often times, even – they make an arrest that upon calm reflection does not turn out to be worthy of prosecution. Even the NOPD would concede this fact.
Cannizzaro, on the other hand, has the luxury of time – the time to make the cool and calculated assessment about what cases need to be prosecuted. Historically, acceptance rates for cases hovered between 50-60%. I am not suggesting that 50-60% is necessarily the appropriate acceptance rate just because it was always that way, but I am suggesting that it is much closer to an appropriate rate than 90%.
In criminal prosecutions the goal should always be quality over quantity. Our District Attorney should use the time he has to prosecute the cases that need to be prosecuted, and to aggressively refuse to prosecute those that don’t. The public should understand that a lower acceptance rate can actually reflect a more efficient and effective DA’s office. And a more efficient and effective DA’s office is exactly what we need now.