When Warren Montgomery first ran for district attorney six years ago, he appeared as an outsider looking to bring change to an office that had come into an undesirable spotlight than former 22nd District Attorney Walter Reed was in one Federal corruption investigation was investigated.
Six years later, Vincent Wynne, who challenges Montgomery for the job, says the office continues to have big problems – particularly that the prosecution has not supported law enforcement in the area and that too many cases end in objection agreements.
The DA's race highlights the local races that will take place on November 3rd. Turnout is expected to be extremely high, possibly a record turnout, thanks in part to the presidential elections, which are also on the ballot.
Montgomery points out the strides he's made at work in six years, including ethical reforms, an increased conviction rate, and a reduction in the time from arrest to resolution.
Wynne said his experience as a prosecutor made him a better candidate, and the support he has received from law enforcement is testament to the rocky relationship police departments have with the incumbent.
The St. Tammany Farmer sent the same list of questions to Montgomery and Wynne. Each candidate answered the questions in writing and they are presented here with only minor adjustments in length. The changes didn't change the tone or ideas of the candidates.
The DA election is open to all registered voters in the St. Tammany and Washington parishes. In addition to election day on November 3, the early voting begins on October 16 and lasts until October 27.
1. What is the most important trait a district attorney must have and what can you point out in your life / work that shows that you possess that trait?
2. What is a mistake you made in your career and what did you learn from it?
3. Why are you more qualified than your opponent?
4. Do you support changes that the state has made to the criminal justice system, including the requirement for unanimous juries and the limitation of sentences for repeat offenders?
5. Should the DA office have its own tax / funding source?
6. Name someone in the criminal justice field who you consider a role model and why you admire them.
1. The most important qualities a district attorney must have are found in the Holy Bible at Micah 6: 8, which says that the Lord requires us to act righteously, to love mercy, and to live humbly with him. Not one but all three of the traits are required by a district attorney.
Every day, the district attorney has to evaluate cases, not just in terms of merit and evidence, but also in terms of what is just and unjust. Just because you can judge someone doesn't mean you should always do it. There are times when the district attorney has a unique opportunity to intervene in the life of an offender and incentivize that defendant to receive drug or mental treatment, professional training, anger management, or other life-changing opportunities. If the prosecution can change its behavior without criminal conviction, we as a society win.
Real criminals, on the other hand, should be convicted and sentenced to imprisonment that punishes the perpetrator, promotes compliance with the law and creates a deterrent to future criminal behavior. So acting right sometimes means following cases to the fullest extent of the law, like Dennis Mischler's. He was a trusted teacher, church and boy scout leader who for over 40 years molested children in three jurisdictions without going to trial. When I directed my prosecutors to prioritize and resolve the oldest cases on their files, it was discovered that this case was left behind by the previous government for years. We prosecuted and won a guilty verdict and 55-year prison sentence for the then 65-year-old defendant.
As a district attorney, I acknowledge that some people who break the law deserve a second chance and that some of them need help (grace), not prison. For example, my office was very involved in creating a veterans' court; The first court planning sessions were held in my office. The Veterans Court directs these men and women who have dutifully served our country to various judicial remedies to take responsibility for their crimes and puts them on the road to salvation by ordering the help they need. They are monitored by the court while they receive help. My office regularly directs offenders to the veterans court and to the other specialized courts (drug court, re-entry court, behavioral health court, etc.) with great success.
Also, as part of my office's pre-trial intervention program (often referred to as a "diversion"), my administration has established a tiering that bases program fees on a defendant's solvency. This ensures that all who qualify have access to the second chance that our program offers, in relatively minor cases, primarily to first-time, nonviolent offenders.
In addition, I implemented the Fresh Start program to help certain nonviolent offenders who qualify under state law for a process called expulsion, which seals their criminal records under strict circumstances. All of these programs are examples of times when, as the district attorney, I used my discretion to show mercy.
After all, when it comes to humility, I don't assume I know everything. I surround myself with bright, talented, ethical people and humbly listen to them.
2. When I was a young prosecutor, I may have been a little too aggressive. I've learned in life that there are times when people may have technically broken the law but did not intend to break the law and no harm was done. In this case, a prosecutor should use his own discretion to determine whether prosecution will lead to justice.
3. For the past six years I have reformed an office that was in dire need of improvement. I have implemented ethical guidelines and procedures so that every employee knows what to expect, as well as measures to evaluate and reward them based on their merits. I digitized an office with little technology. When I took office, most of the staff didn't even have external email. I've transformed the office into a technologically advanced legal practice, where prosecutors have digital access to all records on their laptops, whether they're trying a case in the courtroom or preparing at home.
This proved predictive at the height of the pandemic when my staff made the transition from working in the office to working remotely with ease.
We focused on prosecuting the most serious crimes, increasing criminal convictions by 8% overall. We've reduced the average turnaround time from arrest to resolution by 16%. and we have a domestic violence conviction rate of 79%, compared to the 49% conviction rate in 2014 just before I took office.
In addition, I have established guidelines to ensure that all defendants are treated fairly and uniformly. Before becoming a district attorney, I gained experience as a prosecutor and defense attorney, trying dozens of serious cases before a jury. And as a district attorney, I was responsible for prosecuting over 15,000 crimes.
4. The people have decided to implement unanimous judgments of the jury in crime cases and I agree. This is the standard in 49 of the other 50 states and the standard in federal trials.
With regard to the statute of limitations on penalties for repeat offenders, I think that the state parliament has gone too far in certain cases. This change in state law came under the Justice Reinvestment umbrella, which arose out of a desire to change Louisiana's rank as the world's incarceration capital. This is a worthy goal.
The problem with some changes is that prosecutors are sometimes unable to respond to criminal offenses. For a non-violent crime (such as a drug charge), a defendant is likely to receive a five-year prison sentence from the Department of Justice for one year. The distribution of heroin is now a criminal offense with probation. The unintended consequences of some of these decisions are that attendance at our specialized courts (drug court, behavioral health court, veterans court, re-entry court) has decreased because of the incentive to avoid significant imprisonment by attending one of these courts and receiving life-saving treatment has been removed.
For example, the re-entry program focuses on providing mentoring and professional training for participants. The defendant who participates in this program agrees to a 10-year prison sentence – two years in Angola, where the defendant receives mentoring and professional training. After these two years, the defendant will be released under the supervision of the court for hyperpopulation. During this time, the court is working with local businesses to employ the defendant based on the type of professional training received during the program. The court monitors the defendant's progress over a four to five year period leading to a conclusion.
These participants are far less likely to commit another crime and return to jail than those in the general prison population. The relapse rate among re-entry participants is between 11 and 14%, while that of the general population is just under 50%. During my tenure, we've increased re-entry court attendance from about 30 participants per year to about 100 per year. Following the changes made by judicial authorities during the reinvestment process, we found that participants are choosing to stay 10 to 15 years instead of this time-tested program as they only serve a small percentage of the time and care about the number of Qualify offenses. Participation in this proven program has decreased to 30 participants per year.
The unintended consequence of some of these decisions has resulted in decreased participation in one of our proven relapse reduction programs.
5. I am not in favor of the public paying more taxes. I want that to be clear in the first place!
The prosecution has several sources of funding. About half come from defendants via fines, court costs, rerouting and forfeiture, and federal and state grants. The other half comes from local taxpayers from the St. Tammany and Washington Parish General Funds, the St. Tammany Justice Center Fund, and Washington Parish sales tax. The state provides partial salaries for 33 deputy prosecutors.
If the public wanted to transfer the community funding to the district attorney's office, as long as it didn't result in additional taxes for taxpayers, I'd be for it.
6. Ed Meese, former Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan. He served in the US Army as a second lieutenant and retired as a colonel from the Army Reserve in 1984. After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley with a law degree, he worked as a court clerk in the Alameda County Attorney's Office. He first worked for Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s in a variety of positions including Chief of Staff when Reagan was Governor of California. Mr. Meese joined Reagan's presidential campaign in 1980 as chief of staff and then led his transition to the presidency.
I met Mr. Meese during those years working on the Reagan campaign and administration. In general, I admired that Mr. Meese was organized, results-oriented, impartial, and thoughtful. He was able to understand complex issues and foresee the consequences of decisions on these issues. He was a man of great integrity. He had good judgment and was not afraid of making difficult decisions.
1. Experience is crucial. For the past 24 years, I have served as a trial attorney in federal and state courts in Louisiana, including the courts in the St. Tammany and Washington communities. I worked as a district attorney for the District Attorney's Office for the 22nd Judicial District for eight years, handling thousands of cases and bringing hundreds to justice. I have worked as a criminal defense attorney for the past 15 years, defending individuals on hundreds of cases before the 22nd District Court.
2. It is unfortunate that I did not run for public office earlier in my career. Just like children, there never seems to be a perfect time to run for public office. I've always wanted to get back to the public sector to help the St. Tammany and Washington communities and spend the rest of my career making our community the safest place in Louisiana. Lesson Learned: Don't Wait To Chase Your Dreams.
3. My experience makes me more qualified than my opponent. I've tried hundreds of cases as a prosecutor and worked on thousands of cases as a criminal defense attorney. In addition to my criminal practice experience, I have a significant and diverse civil practice in the St. Tammany and Washington communities, and have worked on cases that range from construction and real estate transactions to business contracts to domestic litigation, similar to the cases where the Civil practice is active practice department … of the public prosecutor's office.
4. Yes. The people voted to reform the jury process in line with the rest of the country. The reform ensures a fairer justice system that requires a unanimous jury of our colleagues. In addition, the criminal law reforms that are laws today allow the judiciary and prosecutors more discretion to properly apply the judiciary without the constraints of the restrictions imposed by law.
5. I am not in favor of the public prosecutor's office having its own source of funding. A state institution with its own source of funding increases the possibility of funds being misused. The St. Tammany Ward addressed the alleged misuse of funds by the Coroner Office, and the St. Tammany Ward should never have to deal with such an issue again.
Political agencies must file their cases and justify expenses in front of the local government agency in order to receive funding. Such controls ensure that public funds are spent appropriately and for the benefit of the community and its citizens.
6. After serving as a prosecutor and defense attorney for twenty-four years, I find it difficult to name just one role model. If I had to choose one, it would be the late Honorable Clayton James.
I have had the privilege of trying many cases in front of Judge James and knowing him personally. He has always been thoughtful in his legal practices and ready to make difficult decisions despite their unpopularity. He reminded me that interpreting and applying the law is really never easy, but if you are steadfast in your beliefs, your choices will consistently reflect your beliefs. He was a brilliant lawyer, a great man, and a wonderful friend.
He knew of my desire to run for the district attorney and always encouraged me to try to say, "Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask because it might just come true."