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Give the DA What He Needs

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Face it, Mr. Mayor: your cameras are a failure, and dedicating another $1.6 million to the debacle is throwing good money after bad.

In Mayor Ray Nagin's 2009 proposed budget, he boasts in a letter to the City Council: "Public Safety has been a top priority since I was first elected, and that commitment has been demonstrated again this year." Nagin elaborates on this theme by listing 2008's accomplishments — including reopening NOPD headquarters, a new special operations division headquarters and renovating Traffic and Municipal courts — and brags that the new budget will pay for a total of 1,700 police officers, 52 more cops than the pre-Katrina level. Those are significant milestones.

With such a formidable police presence, shouldn't Nagin be just as interested in funding the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office so hardened criminals aren't just arrested, but also convicted? Specifically, the mayor should want to increase the number of DA staffers, not see that number shrink. Unfortunately, the mayor's proposed level of city funding for the DA's office in 2009 would force the DA's office to fire two-thirds of its investigators. That is inexcusable in the murder capital of the United States.

Our city just elected new DA Leon Cannizzaro, who now has one of the toughest jobs in America. To put violent offenders behind bars and keep them there, Cannizzaro will need a trusted staff of veteran criminal investigators and prosecutors. "The investigators are essential in order to assist in the preparing of the cases, in helping us in court," Cannizzaro says. "We're trying to use the investigators to bring the witnesses here, to get the evidence we need, to assist the lawyers when they go to court, to help the lawyers with the screening of the cases. It's certainly going to be devastating to lose 12 investigators."

Such a move would be not only devastating, but also foolish in light of what the mayor proposes to fund instead. Nagin's troubled crime camera program cost the city $2.8 million this year alone and, after being useful in only three cases, has become the laughingstock of criminal prosecution. Nagin just doesn't get it, as he parrots his tired party line that the cameras eventually will work. No, they won't. The only thing that will happen "eventually" is that people and businesses will flee the city because of the crime rate — and the lack of successful prosecutions.

Face it, Mr. Mayor: your cameras are a failure, and dedicating another $1.6 million to the debacle is throwing good money after bad. Cannizzaro needs $1.3 million from the city to preserve the 12 investigator positions and 17 others — $300,000 less than what you proposed to spend on the cameras. If you want to fight crime and invest taxpayers' money wisely, this is how you do it.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city funded those salaries. In response to post-Katrina financial straits, the DA's office in 2006 secured a two-year, $3.2 million federal grant to pay them. The grant has expired, and unless the City Council amends Nagin's proposed budget and funds the positions, 12 of the DA's 18 investigators will be given pink slips. Cannizzaro made his case before the council on Friday, Nov. 21. We urge council members to reinstate the $1.3 million for the DA's office — and add $1 million more for the office's diversionary program. Instead of giving first-time, nonviolent drug offenders a criminal record, effectively taking them out of the job market, diversionary program counselors will work with those charged with minor drug offenses, assisting them with drug rehabilitation and job training in exchange for mandatory drug testing and a commitment to remain drug free. This is a program that works; during the recent DA race, all four candidates embraced the diversionary program as an effective method for dealing with non-violent crime.

"The diversionary program does two things," Cannizzaro explains. "It gives nonviolent offenders an opportunity to avoid going into court and obtaining a conviction, and it keeps the dockets free of minor offenses so that judges and prosecutors can concentrate on the violent offenses." Up to 70 percent of the Criminal District Court docket involves nonviolent offenders, Cannizzaro says.

Properly funding the diversionary program is about improving people's lives — and it saves taxpayers money as well. Although buying and using illegal drugs is a crime, first-time offenders (and their families) deserve a second chance to get on the right track. History tells us the alternative only puts them on the road to a life of crime.

We recognize the city faces a $24-million budget gap in light of the council's decision not to buy Nagin's proposed property tax increase, so where does the money come from to fund the diversionary program? For starters, we suggest a full and transparent audit of city sanitation contracts — which the administration promised to have completed by last June. Neighboring Jefferson Parish spends nearly $13 million less than New Orleans on its garbage contracts, which shows that we can make our streets safer, not just cleaner.


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