New Orleans in 2003 led all major cities in per capita homicides for the second year in a row. As the violence surges into the new year, too much of the resultant public fury has focused on the critical needs and shortcomings of the New Orleans Police Department. There are many other moving parts to the war on crime. As the elected prosecutor, the district attorney serves as one of the gatekeepers to the local criminal justice system.
Last week, Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie J. Jordan Jr. met the media to review his first year in office and to present his agenda for 2004. Jordan focused mainly on the critical areas of protecting witnesses, prosecuting violent crime and corruption, and strengthening relationships with other crime-fighting agencies. Each area merits close scrutiny.
Last year, the DA's witness protection program relocated 35 individuals and 61 families. Twenty of the 96 relocations were out of state, an impressive testament to Jordan's resourcefulness. The $110,000 relocation cost is daunting; the average cost for relocating a family of four exceeds $4,000. The City Council's recent allocation of $300,000 is most welcome. "As a result of our ability to relocate more individuals, I think we have had more cooperation (in court)," Jordan said.
It's hard to tell. Last year, more than 150 cases were dismissed because of problems with victims and witnesses, including 84 cases in which victims refused to testify. Unlike predecessor Harry Connick, Jordan did not record comparative figures on how many violent felony cases were refused by the district attorney's office because of witness problems ("Can I Get a Witness?" July 28, 1998). That's unfortunate. Such data is critical to help Jordan make his case for more funding.
In his address, Jordan also focused on conviction rates. Preliminary figures show that the DA processed nearly 10,000 felony cases last year. Of the 8,852 cases accepted for prosecution, 4,432 defendants pleaded guilty as charged; 1,769 pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Of the 153 cases that went to a jury trial, Jordan's prosecutors scored a 55 percent conviction rate. In 189 judge trials, the conviction rate was 53 percent. Both conviction rates are higher than the 50 percent rates Connick scored in both categories in 2002, but Jordan's predecessor took on three times as many trials. Jordan argues he will spend less time trying small-time prostitution and crack pipe cases than his predecessor. Moreover, Jordan says the massive amounts of evidence destroyed in the NOPD evidence room debacle will continue to force his office to make plea bargains with defendants in 2004. Jordan promises to issue a comprehensive report on 2003 within a month. The private Metropolitan Crime Commission -- which disclosed dismal conviction rates at the end of the Connick era -- is now vetting statistics from Jordan's first year.
The DA's public corruption unit reflects Jordan's campaign promise to tackle police misconduct. Ten of the 14 indictments returned by the special grand jury were against law enforcement officers, including one NOPD officer who was convicted of hitting a woman motorist and remains on the force today. The unit also made national news recently with the indictments of two NOPD cops who allegedly falsified a police report on a drug buy. Citing ethical obligations, Jordan then announced the dismissal of more than a dozen pending criminal cases brought by the two indicted cops. We applaud Jordan for setting a tone of integrity in this matter (Connick took similar actions, amid less fanfare). Generally speaking, however, a district attorney should go one step further and review all cases brought by bad cops that resulted in convictions -- not just pending cases.
Jordan has also implemented a pilot program in three police districts to speed up the processing of cases from an average of 60 days to as little as 13 hours. Staffers are on duty to take police reports from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Jordan wants the program to go citywide in 2004. He also wants to implement a "vertical prosecution" model, in which prosecutors handle violent crimes from arrest to conviction. However, the office is "grossly under-funded," Jordan says, citing his office's $3.2 million annual budget -- $1.9 million shy of what he says he needs. Assistant district attorneys start at $30,000 a year, a figure Jordan wants to hike to $50,000. He also wants to update the computer software for the case-tracking system. Currently, email service is irregular and the Web site is still under construction.
Finding that kind of money won't be easy. We like Mayor Ray Nagin's idea of consolidating public safety services and eliminating duplicative efforts as a way of saving money and fighting crime more effectively. We hope these prudent moves will get Jordan's office the assistance he needs. Meanwhile, we applaud Jordan's efforts to make our city safer and to provide real assistance to victims and witnesses. We likewise hope he will continue to build public confidence in our legal system by pursuing public corruption cases at all levels.