Trend could be partially linked to increase in cases brought to trial
A volunteer group that monitors Orleans Parish Criminal Court has found a disturbing increase in delays at the courthouse that could be partially linked to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s push to bring more serious felony cases to trial.
Court Watch New Orleans reported that its volunteers saw continuances granted in nearly two-thirds of the cases it observed, and often the delay between hearings was more than a month. That is a sharp deviation from the gradual decline in continuances the group had seen since its creation following Hurricane Katrina.
“The delays are at a record high,” said Brad Cousins, Court Watch’s executive director.
Cousins acknowledged that monitoring continuances does not provide a complete picture of the court’s operations but said it does give a snapshot of a particular area of inefficiency. The group spent time monitoring roughly 90 percent of the ongoing cases to develop its report. While a certain number of continuances are part of the normal operation of the court, the group’s report finds that the number granted in 2011 was excessive. Volunteers found that continuances were granted because attorneys were unprepared or did not show up for court, because defendants were not transported to court in a timely fashion and because of scheduling conflicts within courtrooms. All of the actors in the judicial system played a role in the delays — judges, attorneys and law enforcement — but Cousins said one of the biggest reasons for delays was the push by Cannizzaro’s office to hold more trials.
“Trials are inefficient ways of resolving cases,” Cousins said. “The number of trials slowed the court to the rate of molasses.”
Cannizzaro vowed to hold 600 trials in 2011, and while his office didn’t reach that lofty goal, it did bring 329 cases to trial. That represented an 18 percent increase compared with 2010, the report said. That increase came despite the number of total cases heard at the court dropping by roughly 2,000.
Cousins said trials are lengthy endeavors that make it impossible to conduct other business inside courtrooms. Roughly half of all continuances observed were because of conflicts in trial scheduling, the report stated. He stressed that he wasn’t blaming the district attorney’s office solely for the delays noting that trials are a necessary part of the judicial process. Trials should be conducted, but not when they aren’t needed.
“We think that nobody should be pursuing trials just to have trials occur,” Cousins said.
But, Assistant District Attorney Chris Bowman said Court Watch’s report is flawed because it doesn’t take a holistic approach to examining the system. He added that simply studying continuances does not give an accurate picture of how the court system is working.
“In and of themselves, they are not a sign of inefficiency,” Bowman said.
He acknowledged that trials cause delays but said that without the realistic threat of a trial, the district attorney’s office cannot effectively prosecute cases. Defendants have to believe they may go to trial and face more serious punishment to be motivated to accept plea deals, he said.
The push to hold more trials was designed to convince defendants that threats from the district attorney’s office had teeth, and Bowman said that push has succeeded. He noted that in 2012 more plea deals are being made by defendants, and the court is operating more effectively and efficiently.
“Every day I’m seeing more plea deals being made,” Bowman said.
Cousins said that in addition to the change in handling trials, Court Watch would like to see the court resolve scheduling issues so that public defenders are not required to be in multiple courtrooms at the same time. Judges also should commit to uniform start times, and the Sheriff’s Office must do a better job of getting prisoners to court.
A recent report by a company hired by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office echoed many of Court Watch’s concerns. Cousins said Court Watch, which has observed more than 10,000 cases, is only interested in improving operations at the court, not spreading blame among its agents.
“Nobody is trying to gum up the works” Cousins said, adding that volunteers are often impressed with the professionalism displayed at the courthouse. “That doesn’t mean the actors in the system can’t show improvement.”