The bill has started to come due for New Orleans voters’ dipping their toes in the “progressive prosecutor” waters.
As crime continues to escalate across the city, its elected politicians increasingly if belatedly have called for some kind of action. Some of it is fratricidal, with Democrat Mayor LaToya Cantrell taking swipes at “other” law enforcement agencies asking for more cooperation, her police chief Shaun Ferguson calling for the City Council to make it easier to use real-time crime camera strategies, on the heels of the Council calling on Ferguson to come up with a plan to address the surge.
However, the “other” agency alluded to made its own statement, that being Democrat District Attorney Jason Williams. Like other “progressive” prosecutors around the country who allege actions such as refusing to prosecute minor offenses, selectively choosing which more serious offenses to pursue, parsimoniously charging up but more frequently down, and relaxing if not eliminating bail standards are “smarter” ways to fight crime, his jurisdiction in the past couple of years has seen a large spike in violent crime.
Williams assumed the helm only 13 months ago, but as of the first week of February had seen discouraging numbers under his tenure. Except for a small decline in simple rapes reported, all violent crime categories had increased by at least 12.5 percent, with carjackings more than doubled and murders up 44 percent. A media story about a doctor quitting the city because of crime went viral on the Internet.
The hikes in crime across many progressive prosecutors’ districts, widely reported by media, can be tricky to ascertain. Some advocates try to dispute that more lax prosecution has spun this off, such as using somewhat stale crime data reported to the federal government to claim little difference exists between the violent crime increase in progressive prosecutors’ realms and others. Setting aside the selective and small sample sizes used, the data itself is somewhat problematic because of the wide variances in reporting, if it happens at all, as well as it can be difficult to disentangle prosecution from policing, so a more micro analysis can better establish if a link exists between lax prosecution and more crime.
Data for that exist, if somewhat difficult to collect. Still, a study a couple of years ago by the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund did exactly that, reviewing actions by progressive prosecutors in six urban jurisdictions compared to their more traditional-minded predecessors. It found a noticeable relationship between felony cases that weren’t prosecuted and guilty pleas and verdicts; more dropped or lost cases generated fewer such pleas concomitant with increases in violent crime.
Whether aware of that, reporters Lee Zurik and Danna Sauer for New Orleans’ WVUE collected data for the past five years concerning DA releases of felony charges. Under the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure, for most felony cases if the DA fails to bring charges, the defendant is released from jail after 60 days behind bars. If the defendant is out on bond, in most cases, he is released from his bond obligations after 150 days.
They discovered just three in 2016, but as the city’s bail practices underwent a change and Williams’ predecessor’s practices underwent scrutiny the number crept up to 60 in 2017, and around 130 each from 2018-2020. But last year the number exploded to 885, and the story provided anecdotes about those released who later were arrested for serious crimes.
Williams tried to fob off the numbers on disruption to the judicial system by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. Yet 2020 saw much more disruption and the numbers didn’t change from 2019. The nearly seven-fold increase after three years of stability almost certainly in almost totality came from Williams’ tactics.
He claimed spending more time on trying to decide who to prosecute caused this, but that it didn’t mean violent criminals were cut loose. He alleged only 52 had such charges, but Zurik and Sauer’s research found numerous gaps in that reporting that likely make that asserted number significantly lower than in reality.
Even Williams tacitly has admitted this association of his policies and less safety when he backtracked on campaign promises against reviving a controversial special unit to target gangs and lengthening sentences for carjacking cases. You reap what you sow, and this evidence confirms what has transpired in other similar districts: progressive prosecution creates a laxness that makes the community less safe. Now it’s up to the Orleans voters who put Williams in office for five more years to do something about it.