A street near the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

The retirement of a notoriously harsh DA has opened the door for criminal justice reform in New Orleans.

In New Orleans, the office of the district attorney has a fraught reputation. Former prosecutor Jim Williams, while photographed for Esquire in 1995, showed off a model electric chair he kept on his desk with the photos of men he had placed on death row. Longtime District Attorney Harry Connick was criticized by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for displaying indifference to the rights of defendants. And the office is broadly known for its aggressive prosecution tactics. 

Current District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who was first elected in 2008, has followed suit. He has attacked efforts to bail people out of jail pretrial, fought to retain nonunanimous jury convictions, vowed to put more children in jail, and used habitual offender laws to increase sentencing. He is also facing an ongoing lawsuit that alleges his office issued fake subpoenas to jail crime victims and to pressure witnesses to cooperate. 

When Cannizzaro announced he would not run for re-election this year, it threw open the city’s DA race. Criminal justice reform advocates see it as a golden opportunity to bring change to New Orleans and its pervasive reliance on incarceration.

The race has come to be defined less by the four candidates who are running, and more by a group of criminal justice reform organizations that joined to form the People’s DA Coalition, driven by the diagnosis that this prosecutor’s office has been pivotal in fueling Louisiana’s record-high incarceration rate. 

“Those of us who work in the criminal justice system are keenly aware of the outsized power of the District Attorney,” said retired judge Calvin Johnson, a key leader in the coalition, which represents more than 30 organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, Court Watch, and the Innocence Project New Orleans. The coalition also includes formerly incarcerated people, public defenders, crime survivors, and others affected by the criminal legal system. 

According to Johnson, the organizers behind the coalition started talking over a year ago about the upcoming election. At the time, they didn’t know whether Cannizzaro would choose to run again. But they did know that in the six years since he had been re-elected, there had been a sea change of criminal justice reform work in Louisiana. In 2017, Governor John Bel Edwards signed a bipartisan law that reformed sentencing statutes and made a considerable dent in the state’s prison population; Edwards won re-election last year in the face of attacks on this record. In 2018, voters passed a constitutional amendment to end nonunanimous juries, which tended to silence Black jurors.  

In New Orleans, these statewide successes for criminal justice reform have contradicted Cannizzaro and his policies. 

“In every case, the district attorney defines who, what, why, how, and, importantly, whether to prosecute,” Johnson said. “This fundamentally shapes our system of mass incarceration.” 

Four candidates are vying to take charge of the office—and potentially to change its practices—in the November election. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3, the race will head to a December runoff.

The candidates are Keva Landrum, Cannizzaro’s predecessor; Arthur Hunter, a former criminal court judge; Jason Williams, a City Council member; and Morris Reed, a former criminal court judge. Reed has been largely absent from candidate forums and doesn’t appear to be mounting an active campaign. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Landrum became acting DA in 2007 when Eddie Jordan resigned. She held office for only a year because she won a seat as a criminal court judge in 2008. But in that short time she drew national attention for coming down hard on marijuana possession by prosecuting repeat offenses as felonies, charges that could result in five to 20 years in prison. 

“I would disagree that I had a punitive record,” Landrum told The Appeal: Political Report, noting that filing felony charges matched state law. Before her term, the office routinely treated such cases as misdemeanors, which carry much lower penalties. Critics accused her of racking up felony convictions to make it appear that the DA’s office was tackling violent crime after New Orleans was declared a “murder capital.”

Hunter and Williams have both said they would drop all marijuana possession cases if elected. Landrum told The Lens she would either drop those cases or transfer them to a lower municipal court. Since her earlier term, New Orleans has adopted policies to encourage police to issue summons for marijuana, which are prosecuted in municipal court.

The platform of the People’s DA Coalition goes far beyond asking candidates to decline to prosecute marijuana cases, though. It calls for the next DA to commit to other robust reforms, including refusing to seek the death penalty, not prosecuting minors as adults, adopting full data transparency, and no longer using a multi-bill, habitual offender statute that considerably increases minimum sentences for people with past convictions. 

On the campaign trail, all the candidates are vowing to break with the office’s status quo of harsh practices with policies more aligned with a reform approach. But contrasts are apparent.

Williams is the only candidate who committed to the platform in its entirety during a Sept. 23 candidate forum the coalition hosted. 

“I could have written [the platform], or they could have written mine,” Williams said in a follow-up interview with the Political Report. “I think this coalition helps the people of the city who don’t have as much time and who may not have this level of education to really start to understand how some of these things [in the DA’s office] impact them.”

In particular, Williams is the only one of the three leading candidates to pledge to never make use of the habitual offender statute to enhance defendants’ sentences. 

He is also the only candidate who said during the forum that he would not prosecute minors as adults when they were charged with serious offenses. The City Council and Cannizzaro have in the past clashed over the incumbent DA’s practice of transferring nearly all armed robbery cases committed by 15- and 16-year-olds to adult court.

Williams cites his record as proof that his commitment to the coalition’s platform is genuine. He previously worked as a criminal defense attorney, including with the Innocence Project New Orleans. In 2008, Williams ran for DA on a reform-minded platform against Cannizzaro but lost. He has served on the City Council since 2014. On the council, he has worked on bail reform meant to lower the jail’s pretrial population, sponsored a city ordinance to reduce penalties for marijuana possession, and established public databases tracking the criminal justice system in the city. And this summer, Williams sponsored a successful ordinance to bring funding for the public defenders’ office closer to parity with the DA’s office. 

However, Williams is facing a serious hurdle. This year, he came under a federal indictment for tax fraud. The trial date for the case is set as Jan. 11, 2021. 

Williams has pleaded not guilty and he dismisses the charge as politically motivated. “I paid my taxes for all of those years that they’re talking about.” he said. “[Voters see this] an old-school political tactic.” 

Hunter is also pointing to his record as evidence that he would bring reform to New Orleans. A former police officer and attorney, he became a judge in 1996. In that role, he notes that he has advocated for indigent defendants and helped found a re-entry program.   

“Every lawyer who has ever stepped foot in [Hunter’s] courtroom has nothing but the best to say about him,” Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voters Organized to Educate, a local advocacy group that has endorsed Hunter, told the Political Report. He added, in reference to Hunter’s response to the group’s questionnaire, “Hunter also said that he would be willing to spend a night in jail in order to know what it is like for people who are arrested. That really speaks to his empathy.”

Hunter has expressed reservations about the coalition’s platform on some key issues, resisting its call for candidates to draw lines in the sand against punitive practices that fall within a DA’s discretion. He indicated he remains open to prosecuting minors as adults. He similarly told the Political Report that he would continue using the habitual offender statute; but he added he would lobby the legislature to repeal Louisiana’s habitual offender laws and abolish capital punishment.

And at the Sept. 23 forum, Hunter was the only candidate to indicate he may still seek the death penalty, a position he confirmed to the Political Report. Landrum and Williams both indicated they would not do so, a stark break with the office legacy. 

Supporters argue that Hunter may not be willing to rule out using some statutes, but that his record shows him exercising his discretion well: As a judge, Hunter ruled that the state should pay $180,000 to a man who was wrongfully convicted and threw out the conviction of a domestic violence survivor who murdered her abusive husband.

“I believe in rehabilitation, redemption, and second chances,” Hunter said. “I will take care to only bring charges of second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence, in extraordinary circumstances.” Louisiana has the nation’s highest share of people serving a life without the possibility of parole sentence; it is one of two states that imposes an automatic life sentence for second-degree murder. 

Reilly expects that whoever comes out ahead between Williams and Hunter on Nov. 3 will draw more support from reform-minded advocates, should only one make it to a runoff.

“The conservatives and bail bondsmen and maybe some other people will vote for Landrum, but I doubt it will be enough to stop the possibility of a run-off,” Reilly said. “I know the troops will rally behind whoever is more successful [between Williams and Hunter] if there is a runoff.” 

Landrum has made the case that she is the only candidate with the necessary experience to be DA. She points to her prosecutorial experience, and to her work as chief judge of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court until early this year. 

“The best way to change a system is to work within it and learn that system,” Landrum told The Political Report. She added that the criticisms that she isn’t reform-minded enough are an effort to distract from the fact that she is the most qualified candidate running in the race. “It is an affront to women, as if we could not stand on our own skills and leadership to run this office.”

During the Sept. 23 forum, Landrum would also not commit to some of the key tenets of the coalition’s platform, like whether she would prosecute a child in adult court. Unlike Hunter and Williams, she did not indicate that she would oppose arresting defendants on grounds relating to their immigration status. Elsewhere, again unlike her rivals, she did not express support for the summer’s ordinance advancing funding parity for the public defender’s office.

She has also said she would still make use of the habitual offender statute, though she wishes to limit its use.  

“The multi-bill statute was enacted to protect citizens and shield our community from violent offenders who continue to engage in that activity,” Landrum told the Political Report. “It’s become a sword instead of a shield in order to coerce plea bargains, even in nonviolent cases. … My policy is going to be that we will not utilize the multiple bill except for in exceptional circumstances with supervisory approval.”

When pressed, Landrum did not specify what circumstances would justify its use. 

The People’s DA Coalition will not endorse a candidate, but individuals and organizations within the coalition are excited to talk about what needs to change.

Jerome Morgan, an advocate with the coalition who was convicted of murder and later exonerated, says he was wronged by Canizzaro who sought to reinstate his conviction even after evidence proved Morgan not guilty. Morgan, who is supporting Williams in the election in his personal capacity, told the Political Report that he cares about the next DA having a clear commitment to reform and a moral compass, even when it is difficult or against the status quo. 

Morgan stressed that he is most hopeful about the prospect of the coalition holding the next DA accountable, whomever it might be. The coalition plans to continue as a watchdog group after the election and host yearly forums with whoever is elected.  

“For a long time, it was a norm [for the DA] to support unjust practices and racist ideologies,” Morgan said. “I am excited to be a part of the coalition, because we are setting a new norm. No longer will the DA have so much unchecked power.”