Recently, Orleans Parish's elected criminal magistrate judge Harry Cantrell has come under some serious fire from civil rights organizations for his bond setting practices. The MacArthur Justice Center, a prominent public interest law firm dedicated to advocating for human rights and social justice, filed suit against Judge Cantrell on June 27 alleging that he violates prisoners' rights by setting bonds that do not consider their ability to pay or any consideration of alternative non-financial conditions of release.
This story begins last year, when the city council and Leon Cannizzaro, the Orleans Parish district attorney, got into a little bit of a tizzle. Now, I think that it's fair to say that Leon is somewhat of a divisive and controversial figure in the community. As I've written about here, he's jailed sexual assault victims. He has prosecuted damn near every juvenile as an adult that he can under state law. He's either tried to prosecute or actually prosecuted defense lawyers and investigators. People his office has convicted have been accused of trying to kill him. He calls himself a Democrat in a city where it is essential that you be a Democrat to be elected to citywide office, yet has endorsed many Republicans in various races.
I've met with Leon 3 or 4 times. Every single one of those times I was trying to convince him to allow my client to plead to a lesser offense or to consider a client's mitigating circumstances. He agreed to my request once, the other times he did not. To be fair, he appeared as if he was listening to me with sincerity as I was making my arguments to him. I would not even begin to argue that I know him personally, but he has never treated me personally in a manner that I thought was undignified, unfair, or inappropriate.
Anyways, this argument between the city council and Leon began over the latter's “acceptance rate.” I have talked about how district attorneys accept and refuse cases previously. If you have not read that post, think of it like this: after law enforcement arrests and books a person for an offense (whatever it is), they hand over all their information to the district attorney's office. The DA then must decide whether to prosecute or not prosecute. The “acceptance rate” is the percentage of the total cases brought to the DA's office by law enforcement that Leon decides to prosecute.
Under the previous DA, the acceptance rate had been about 50%; meaning that the DA decided to prosecute about half of the cases brought to him by NOPD. Leon has increased that percentage to over 90%. As an aside, I find it impossible to believe that the DA's office would be able to convict on over 90% of the cases brought to it by NOPD, especially considering NOPD's well-known and oft-lamented penchant for shoddy work.
This leads to an inexorable conclusion that Leon has a “shoot first, ask questions later” type of attitude in this respect. I feel 100% confident in saying that the DA's office accepts too many cases, wastes time on those that it should have refused in the first place, and grudgingly ends up dismissing those cases when it realizes it effed up. I also think that a lower acceptance rate would make the DA's office more efficient. On the other hand, I also believe that the city council's use of the DA's acceptance rate as a benchmark doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Put differently, the DA's acceptance rate has little, if anything, to do with how well (or poorly) he and his office are doing their respective jobs. Efficiency and job performance are two different things.
Apparently, the city council got pissed that Leon was and is accepting so many cases. Thus, the council decided to withhold about $600,000 from Leon's budget. IIRC, that money was given to Orleans Public Defenders, but I can't find an article confirming that. Make no mistake, this was purely a political move. One council member even admitted that the budget cut was intended to get the DA's attention.
If you've gotten this far, you might be thinking: what the hell does a fight about funding have to do with with setting of bonds? Well, after the city cut his budget, Leon moved his prosecutors that had been in Municipal Court back to Criminal District Court and reversed his policy of sending state misdemeanor cases to Municipal Court and began sending them to Tulane and Broad. Thus, Judge Cantrell began setting bonds on misdemeanor cases that would have normally been set by Municipal Court judges. This has resulted in dramatic increases in bond for relatively minor offenses (simple battery, simple possession of marijuana, simple assault, disturbing the peace, DWI, etc.). By all accounts, it has also slowed down the process for many low-level offenders. Some have even suggested that Leon's actions constituted some sort of "revenge" against the city council. That begs the question: revenge for what?
The bond increases now in place can be demonstrated by a simple example: person was arrested recently for first offense refusal DWI, driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and failing to maintain control over her vehicle. If the bonds had been set by a municipal court judge, the TOTAL amount of the bonds on the three charges would probably been between $700 and $1,000. Judge Cantrell set the bond on the DWI at $5,000 and the bonds on each of the traffic offenses at $2,500. A $5,000 bond on a first-offense DWI for somebody who has never been arrested before is barely defensible. Two $2,500 bonds on traffic offenses is completely indefensible. Apparently, Judge Cantrell has decided that he will not set a bond lower than $2,500 on ANY offense, regardless of the person's ability to pay or the nature of the offense. Furthermore, Judge Cantrell is requiring that almost everybody obtain a commercial bond to secure their release (i.e. they must pay a bondsman to bail them out of jail). According to the lawsuit, in most cases he will not consider any alternative non-financial conditions of release (such as an ROR, a secured personal surety, etc). Now, this person with the recent DWI arrest was released on her own recognizance (an “ROR”), which means that she did not have to pay a bondsman to be released from jail. She is apparently one of the fortunate ones.
There are a litany of problems with this new arrangement, which we will discuss next week.
If you need a bond set or representation in any criminal matter, make sure you call the Law Office of Alex Kriksciun today.