Sentencing for Weed Possession in the News this Week

There’s been a lot of discussion about how severely possession of marijuana should be punished in the courts and the media this week. The Louisiana Supreme Court is considering a case out of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in which a man was sentenced to 13 years in prison without possibility of parole for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. Judge Zibilich originally sentenced the man to only five years (see 4/2/12 docket entry), but was then forced to increase the sentence to comply with the mandatory minimums in Louisiana’s multiple bill statute (similar to a “three strikes you’re out” law). Bills seeking to reduce these penalties, meanwhile, have been rejected by the state legislature this month.

While Court Watch NOLA has not taken a position on this issue, we are privy to some of the courthouse scuttlebutt. Criminal justice system actors in favor of lighter penalties often argue that time and resources spent prosecuting these crimes would be better spent on violent felony cases. Prosecutors, on the other hand, often cite the flexibility that tougher sentences and the multiple bill statute give them, so that a violent criminal who may have wriggled out of a prior charge can be put in prison for a long time based on the marijuana possession charge. Based on recent legislative action, it looks like law enforcement is winning this argument for the time being.

Media Buzzing Over CWN’s 2013 Report

The media is buzzing over the release of Court Watch NOLA’s 2013 Report! The Report – Court Watch NOLA’s most detailed yet – celebrated the organization’s 15,000th volunteer courtroom observation, as well as the significant improvements our volunteers observed in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in 2013.

Read the Executive Summary or the full 2013 Report.

Educating the public about the importance of making our criminal courts more efficient, transparent, and procedurally fair is critical to Court Watch NOLA’s mission, so CWN is gratified by the media attention our 2013 Report earned. The Times-Picayune, The New Orleans Advocate, FOX 8 WVUE, and the Mid-City Messenger all covered its release. You can also listen to Angela Hill’s coverage, or watch video footage of CWN’s Executive Director on “The Hot Seat” with Norman Robinson, as well as District Attorney Cannizzaro’s positive remarks about the Report to WWL (at the four minute mark of the linked video).

The release of Court Watch NOLA’s 2013 Report is the culmination of fifteen months of volunteer and staff work, and Court Watch NOLA needs your help to continue this fight for reform. Please consider clicking the button on the right to make a secure, tax-deductible contribution. Also be sure to follow Court Watch NOLA on Facebook for regular court updates.

CWN Releases 2013 Report, Makes 15,000th Volunteer Observation

Court Watch NOLA is proud to release its 2013 Report today. This Report is Court Watch NOLA’s most detailed yet, exploring the state of New Orleans’ Criminal District Court, showcasing the observations of the more than 100 volunteers from all walks of life who watched court for us last year, and making best practices-based recommendations for how to make the criminal justice system more efficient, transparent, and accountable.

Court Watch NOLA volunteers observed significant progress at Tulane and Broad in 2013, seeing fewer and shorter delays than in previous years. The Court also made strides towards greater transparency.  And Court Watch NOLA itself recorded a huge milestone, making - after only six years in existence - our 15,000th volunteer observation! Check out the Report and look for us in the news over the coming days:

Read the Executive Summary

Read the Full Report

Court Watch NOLA could not do this important work without the support of its dedicated volunteers and supporters like you. Please consider making a secure, tax-deductible donation to Court Watch NOLA today through this website or by mailing a contribution to P.O. Box 750633, New Orleans, LA 70175.

Thanks again to all of our volunteers and supporters, and here’s to another 15,000 observations over the next few years!

CWN Expands Mission, Adds Focus on Procedural Fairness

Court Watch NOLA is proud to announce its new and expanded mission statement: Court Watch NOLA is dedicated to promoting greater efficiency, transparency, and procedural fairness in Louisiana criminal courts through citizen involvement and courtroom observation.

CWN’s new focus on procedural fairness – in addition to efficiency and transparency, our traditional areas of concern – is the result of extensive research into judicial and court monitoring best practices, and promotes both public satisfaction with the court system and public safety.

The key elements of procedural fairness – “voice (allowing litigants to be heard), neutrality (making decisions based on neutral, transparent principles), respectful treatment, and trust (the perception that the judge is sincere and caring)”[1] – not only can increase public satisfaction with criminal courts, but have also been proven to reduce recidivism and increase compliance with court orders.[2] According to the American Association of Judges, “Procedural fairness is THE critical element in public perception and satisfaction with the court system.”[3]

Court Watch NOLA volunteers are therefore being trained to watch for best-practice-based indicators of efficiency, transparency, and procedural fairness in the courtroom, and CWN reports, starting with our 2014 Report, will include extensive information on this important topic.


[1] Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction, Am. Judges Ass’n White Paper at 3 (Sep. 26, 2007), attached as Ex. A.

[2] Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction, Am. Judges Ass’n White Paper at 7 (Sep. 26, 2007), attached as Ex. A; Berman and Gold, Procedural Justice from the Bench: How Judges Can Improve the Effectiveness of Criminal Courts, The Judges Journal, Vol. 51, No. 2 at 22, attached as Ex. C; Lee, C.G., F. Cheesman, D. Rottman, R. Swaner, S. Lambson, M. Rempel & R. Curtis (2013) A Community Court Grows in Brooklyn: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts at 178 (available at http://www.courtinnovation.org/research/community-court-grows-brooklyn-comprehensive-evaluation-red-hook-community-justice-center-f ).

[3] Burke and Leben, Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction at 5, American Judges Association, 2007 (emphasis original).

Should Children and Teenagers Be Tried as Adults?

From the New York Center for Juvenile Justice: “A 16-year old can’t vote, serve on a jury, drink, attend an R-rated movie, or get a flu shot without parental consent. But she can be tried as an adult and sent to adult prison.” Also check out the very moving video

The situation is even more extreme in Louisiana, where children as young as 14 can be tried as adults if they have been charged with very violent crimes, see La. Children’s Code art. 857. Court Watch NOLA volunteers see children and teenagers sentenced as adults – often to years and decades in adult prisons – every day. Often for very violent crimes, but it still raises the question: Is this fair?

Tens of Millions at Stake in Judgeships Study

If, as the rumor mill and the Bureau of Governmental Research suggest, the committee examining the number of judgeships in Louisiana is going to hire the National Center for State Courts to do a long, thorough study of the issue, then the question is: why didn’t it hire the NCSC to do this years ago? The NCSC is a respected, neutral authority in today’s court reform landscape… just like it was years ago, when the study committee began its work. If the NCSC had been brought in then and had recommended reducing the number of judgeships, the state could have acted on that before judges across Louisiana get elected to six-year terms this fall. Millions of dollars are at stake here. Kudos to BGR for aggressively pursuing this crucial issue, which CWN was among the first to raise in its 2012 Report.

N.B. It’s official – Three years is apparently not enough time to study a simple question: given that New Orleans has the same number of judges today as it did in the late 1990s, when the city boasted a much larger population, should we reduce the number of judgeships in order to save taxpayer dollars? You can read the full report here.

CWN Updates 2012 Report

CWN revised the subpoena start time for Section C listed on pages 21-22 of its 2012 Report from 8:30 to 9:00 A.M. The original report was based on information from the Clerk of Criminal Court’s office, which CWN has recently been informed was incorrect. CWN also took this opportunity to clarify on page 12 of the 2012 Report that while Judges are required to grant joint continuance motions, these joint requests comprised only 20% of the continuances CWN volunteers observed in 2012. CWN made these clarifications as part of its continuing effort to be as accurate as possible in all of its reports.

Chief Judges: Courts Should Embrace Procedural Justice

The national conferences of Chief Judges and Court Administrators recently passed a resolution encouraging all state courts to embrace “procedural justice” (a.k.a. procedural fairness). The resolution states that “extensive research demonstrates that in addition to providing legal due process, it is important also to meet the public’s expectations regarding the process in order to increase positive public perceptions of the court system, reduce recidivism, and increase compliance with court orders.” In other words, perception matters – the public’s view of the courts even affects the crime rate – so Court Watch NOLA will be incorporating the concept of procedural justice into its own observations and reports over the coming weeks. Check out www.proceduralfairness.org for even more information on this crucial topic.

Does Drop in Trial Numbers Portend a More Efficient Court in 2013?

ICYMI, the Advocate is reporting that in 2013 Tulane & Broad saw the lowest number of jury trials held in years. Just two years ago, by contrast, CWN reported that a huge rise in the number of jury trials was bogging down the court, so hopefully this drop in trials portends a more efficient court in 2013.  Check back in a few weeks for CWN’s 2013 Report to see if this is the case.