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What Jason Williams Wants To Accomplish As New Orleans District Attorney

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the course of this year, we've talked a lot about the criminal justice system in the U.S., and we've invited a number of guests to share their ideas about why or how it needs to be reformed. During last month's elections, voters weighed in. They elected district attorneys who promised to stop prosecuting low-level drug use and over-prosecuting nonviolent offenses in cities like Austin, Texas, Chicago and Los Angeles.

And they joined other so-called progressive DAs in San Francisco, St. Louis and Philadelphia. And in Orleans Parish, La., which locks up its residents at some of the highest rates in the country, voters also chose a new DA last weekend in a runoff election. District Attorney-elect Jason Williams has promised a number of changes to shift focus away from prosecution and incarceration to other methods to promote community safety. And he is with us now to tell us more.

Jason Williams, welcome, and congratulations on your win.

JASON WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So we've described kind of the broader movement among people seeking the office that you will soon hold to kind of shift away from this overreliance on prosecution and what a lot of people see as a racially biased or a system that's biased against the poor, toward other methods to contribute to community safety. So just what are some of the first things you would like to accomplish when you take office? Can you give us just a sense of what are some of the specific programmatic changes you want to make?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. No, absolutely. No. 1, we want to take away all the secrecy that's existed in the DA's office. No one knows the racial disparities and gender disparities that exist in terms of who's prosecuted and who's not prosecuted. So, first and foremost, we want to set up a host of public-facing dashboards that provide a baseline of what exists under this last administration so people can see that these reform efforts are not just reform for reform's sake, but actually delivering real public safety benefits.

MARTIN: In the current environment, the current political environment, during the current administration, these kinds of changes have gotten tremendous pushback. For example, like, the attorney general, William Barr, said in a speech last year that some DAs, quote, "style themselves social justice reformers and spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the laws." I mean, this is the chief criminal justice officer of the United States. What - how do you respond to that?

WILLIAMS: We've had some dark days in terms of national leadership, and it certainly has had a profound impact on the criminal legal system. I wouldn't think we can call it the criminal justice system based on the past four years. Now, Bill Barr actually came down here on the first day of early voting and gave a very similar speech, encouraging the electorate to not support me.

But what I'll tell you is this. The people of New Orleans know it, and I think people in this country are starting to get it. That brand of policing and prosecuting, trying to give as many poor people as much time as a judge can say - that has not made us safer. In fact, it makes us less safe because people do not want to participate in the system. And if you don't have witnesses and victims engaging, willing participation, you can't bring successful cases, right?

So I know that fearmongering has been around for a while, and it usually works. But I believe that tide is changing, and I think sharing the data so that folks can see the why, not just the what, is going to help to defeat the fearmongering so hopefully it can never crop back up again.

MARTIN: We're broadcasting from Washington, D.C. And here in this jurisdiction, there's a bill pending in the council to give early release to people who were prosecuted as juveniles if they've successfully served their sentences for a minimum of 15 years. And there's been a lot of pushback against this bill, a lot of opposition to this bill, from the family members of victims. And in most of these cases here, everybody involved is of color. Everybody involved is African American.

And I do wonder how you - how do you persuade people that there might be a better way, particularly people who've been harmed?

WILLIAMS: The fact that we have prosecuted so many people for any and everything and only seen violent crime rates go higher and higher - and I'll tell you, we've had a high murder rate here in the city of New Orleans for a number of years. And most of those crimes are retaliatory. There's a good book, "Ghettoside" that follows a homicide detective. And you start to figure out that a lot of violent crime goes unsolved in poor communities. And when murders go unsolved, then families start retaliating against the folks who they thought hurt their own families because the system has failed them. Right? And by prioritizing violent crime and handling drug cases and addiction cases differently and crimes that are born out of poverty differently, it allows us to be more focused and deliver that success for those victims in poor neighborhoods, which is going to bring the murder rate down.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, if we - if you and I were to talk two years from now and we talk about the changes that you've brought about, what kind of conversation do you hope we are having?

WILLIAMS: I think the conversation we would be having would be one that is centered around the synergy of the few progressive DAs that are working to do this, to engage in this real reform around the country - a real synergy that is growing and training other offices that might not be in urban settings, that are maybe more in suburban or country settings because they will have looked at the results of doing it a different way. And they will see that, yes, really, simply put, injecting a bit of humanity and equity into a system that has been void of it is actually yielding real public safety benefits. It's not going to just be, oh, reform, reform, reform for reform's sake, but, wow, this really made our community safer and more transparent and more fair.

MARTIN: Jason Williams is a New Orleans City Council member and the district attorney-elect for Orleans Parish in Louisiana. We reached him today in New Orleans.

District Attorney-elect, thank you so much for speaking with us. And I do hope we'll speak again.

WILLIAMS: I look forward to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.