NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Several New Orleans city counsel members have proposed an end to the practice of jailing victims to compel them to testify. The resolution points to two years of data indicating sexual assault and domestic violence victims can be arrested on material witness warrants.
Now, council members say it’s more important than ever to put this to a stop, but the District Attorney’s office claims the resolution could have “dangerous unintended effects."
Right now, the Orleans District Attorney’s Office or a defense lawyer can ask a judge to issue a material witness warrant if they refuse to testify. Resolution R-19-56 is attempting to end this practice.
City Councilwoman Helena Morena first tackled the issue when she served in the legislature after she caught wind of it in a Court Watch NOLA report two years ago.
“If you threaten victims with jail time, that’s not the right way to have them participate,” Moreno said.
She said she thought lawmakers had taken the appropriate steps to stop it, but that wasn’t the case. Now Moreno and fellow City Council members Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Jason Williams are taking another stab at it.
“It’s right before the legislative session and we felt it was important for us to put forth this resolution now,” Moreno said. “It directs the legislature to look into this issue and to prohibit the practice of jailing victims, and then number two, it directs this procedure in New Orleans end."
Simone Levine, executive director of Court Watch NOLA supports the resolution.
“We are very happy it’s being brought into the spotlight. The problem has not been solved,” Levine said.
According to Levine, arresting victims of violent crime and sex abuse erodes trust in the criminal justice system while compounding existing trauma.
“First traumatized by terrible sexual or violent crimes, then, afterwards, incarcerated by law-enforcement that’s supposed to be protecting them,” Levine said.
Yet, Orleans Parish District attorney Leon Cannizzaro said over the course of five years, only 28 people were taken into custody on a material witness warrant out of 85,000 cases.
“It takes place in probably less than one percent of the cases where a judge is even asked to issue a warrant for person’s arrest because they failed to cooperate with the prosecution,” Cannizzaro said.
The District Attorney’s office went on to say it discourages the council from adopting this policy because it will “embolden domestic abusers, child abusers and sex criminals to intimidate, threaten, harass and coerce their victims and witnesses into staying silent.”
Moreno said the Violence Against Women’s Act has requirements in place to discourage arrest of victims to try to force them to testify. Without those policies, she said federal funding could be in jeopardy.
State Senator JP Morrell told FOX 8 he is authoring statewide legislation similar to the council’s resolution for the upcoming session.