At a recent New Orleans City Council meeting, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro made a modest proposal that would dramatically decrease the overload of cases in Criminal District Court, free up the DA's office to pursue violent criminals more effectively and reduce the local jail population. Cannizzaro wants to move cases involving first-offense, misdemeanor marijuana charges from Criminal District Court to Municipal Court. We think this is a good idea.
The DA says the move will relieve Criminal Court of almost one-third of its docket — more than 700 cases — and give prosecutors more time to focus on trying felonies instead of nonviolent first-time misdemeanors. Currently, police arrest, book and transport to Orleans Parish Prison anyone suspected of first-time, misdemeanor marijuana possession. NOPD says cops have no choice but to arrest in such cases because the crime is a state violation and not covered by the city's municipal code. A suspect's first appearance in court is for a bond hearing, and those who can't make bond typically spend seven to 10 days in jail — until they are formally charged. Criminal Court usually conducts these arraignments in Magistrate Court, where only one commissioner is assigned to preside over these cases on a daily basis.
Under Cannizzaro's plan, cops would have the option of arresting a suspect for marijuana possession or issuing a summons, which means fewer people will spend the night in Orleans Parish Prison for a misdemeanor. With summons in hand, suspects would be arraigned at their first court appearance. Municipal Court has four judges available to preside over possession cases, so the process would almost certainly be faster. Plus, the city attorney's office, not the DA, would handle prosecutions. By taking jail time out of the equation, suspects won't have to worry about losing their jobs over a misdemeanor, so they'll likely be more able to pay the $500 fine upon conviction.
To make Cannizzaro's proposal a reality, the City Council must pass a municipal ordinance making first-time marijuana possession a violation of the municipal code. Sounds easy, but it's not. Most politicians are loath to pass any legislation that might make them appear soft on crime, no matter how much time or money would be saved. We note that the council's Criminal Justice Committee was supposed to discuss the matter last Wednesday, but the meeting was canceled.
We think the council should not only enact Cannizzaro's proposal, but also improve it.
In our view, cops shouldn't have the option of arresting someone for first-time marijuana possession. Unless the person has an outstanding warrant or the marijuana possession charge is among numerous charges, the cop should write the ticket and move on. There's an ongoing debate over whether NOPD is required to arrest every suspect on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges. We suggest the council mandate that police get out their pens and not their handcuffs.
First-time offenders also should be given probation, not jail time, and if they satisfy all probation requirements, the conviction should be set aside. State law already allows this for misdemeanors. According to Cannizzaro, a former judge, it is now up to a judge's discretion whether someone gets probation. Keep in mind that even a first-time misdemeanor possession conviction gives someone a permanent criminal record, which can hurt future employment prospects. It makes much more sense, and demonstrates a measure of compassion, to give a first offender a chance at redemption rather than the stain of a permanent criminal record. If drug treatment or counseling would help, then make it a condition of probation.
State marijuana laws need to be changed as well. If a first-time marijuana offender is convicted a second time for any amount, it is a felony. Compare that to driving while intoxicated, which directly endangers lives: Only a third DWI conviction triggers a mandatory felony charge. State and local laws on alcohol and marijuana abuse should be in sync. Furthermore, Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the country, and the majority of those in jail are nonviolent drug offenders. We need jail space for violent offenders and recidivist felons, and we need to spend public dollars on health care and education — not jailing first-time offenders. The council should stand tall and enact the DA's modest proposal.