By Julia O'Donoghue

Louisiana district attorneys oppose a bill that would prohibit prosecutors from putting sexual assault and domestic violence victims in jail in order to compel them to testify in criminal cases against their perpetrators.

"This tool is very, very necessary for us to use on rare occasions," said Charles Ballay, Plaquemines Parish's top prosecutor and head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. "This is rarely, rarely ever used, but it is a tool that must be used sometimes."

Ballay, who said opposition from the state's DAs is unanimous, testified Tuesday (April 16) before the Senate Judiciary C Committee, which advanced the bill to the full Senate for consideration on a 5-2 vote. The vote is just the first step in a long process, one over which district attorneys have a lot of sway, particularly if the bill gets to the House.

Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, sponsored the bill, in large part, because a judicial watchdog group, Court Watch NOLA, discovered New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was jailing sexual assault and domestic violence victims to get them to testify in criminal cases. At least two women who had survived rape and domestic violence were jailed for about a week each in 2016, according to the organization.

Cannizzaro has said the practice of jailing victims or witnesses is rare. Out of 28 people held to compel testimony, the district attorney said in February that two involved sex crimes and 21 involved either murder or attempted murder.

Morrell's legislation, Senate Bill 146, would provide sexual assault and domestic violence exceptions to the "material witness warrant" used to compel people to testify.

"Simply put, you re-traumatize a victim by incarcerating them to make them testify," Morrell said.

The New Orleans City Council has approved two resolutions since 2017 urging Cannizzaro to change his policy. With the district attorney declining to do so, New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno said she approached Morrell about a legislative fix at the state level. Moreno, who used to serve in the Louisiana House, presented the bill with Morrell Tuesday.

"I would say it is most cruel way to try to entice testimony from someone," Moreno said.

Moreno said she's willing to discuss alternatives to material witness warrants for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, such as safe houses, ankle bracelets or other types of monitoring.

District attorneys say the threat of jail sometimes helps force victims into assistance programs they might otherwise resist. They also note that victims cannot be put in jail unless a judge signs off on a warrant.

Prosecutors say material witness warrants in general are pretty rare. From 2012 to 2017, the district attorneys association estimated only 150 material witness warrants were granted among 750,000 cases. Very few of those were material witness warrants for victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, according to the group.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, implied that Morrell's legislation was a proposal in search of a problem. District attorneys in his area do not throw witnesses, let alone victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, in jail on a regular basis, he said.

"I understand you have a problem in your parish," White said. "My question is: How big a problem is it?"

Morrell responded that the policy is problematic, even if it isn't used all that often.

"Sometimes when something is wrong, you have to correct it," Morrell said. "The fact that we even have this in statute and it is allowed is offensive in itself."

(c)2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans