Letter: More arrests not always better

In its recent letter to the Advocate, the ACLU was critical of the Metropolitan Crime Commission for wanting more jail space in our Parish Prison.

The commission seems to always want more of something from the criminal justice system in New Orleans, whether it is appropriate or not. From the DAs they wanted us to accept more cases. They never said how much more, or which ones, they simply said “more”.

We never set a limit on the number of cases we could accept. We did, however, require the police to show us, in each case, that a crime had been committed, that the police had made a valid arrest and that there is sufficient evidence, legally obtained, for us to be able to provide guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The police can make an arrest based only on probable cause. The prosecutor, however, needs much more than that to gain a conviction. He must be able to present in court proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The acceptance rate of my predecessor was over 85 percent. Ours was around 50 percent to 55 percent, much lower than that of my predecessor and never high enough for the commission.

My case acceptance policy was determined by several constitutional mandates: the rules governing police conduct relative to arrest and evidence gathering and the rules of professional and prosecutorial ethics governing the conduct of prosecutors in accepting criminal charges against a citizen. In other words, if the police made a bad arrest or gathered insufficient evidence or obtained evidence unlawfully, or not at all, then my assistants were supposed to refuse the case.

The results of these policies were better cases for prosecution, less plea bargaining, more trials, a quicker disposition of cases and, most importantly, more guilty-as-charged convictions. Further, our policy of multiple billing repeat felons after conviction also allowed a judge to impose longer sentences.

More arrests, standing alone, solves nothing. Accepting bad charges or overcharging arrestees is dishonest and unethical. A conviction rate based on unnecessary plea bargaining should be a signal that something is wrong in the system: a bad arrest or insufficient evidence, or unethical or careless screening by the prosecution.

“More” does not mean better, a lesson the commission never learned.

(A well-documented 11-year study of our case screening practices may be found in “The Screening/Bargaining Tradeoff.” Stanford Law Review, Volume 55, 2002.)

Harry Connick

former New Orleans district attorney, 1974-2003

New Orleans