NEW ORLEANS- The criminal justice community is hailing a City Council decision Thursday as a progressive reform that can help the city run more efficiently.
The council's vote gives police the option to replace arrest with a summons for certain misdemeanors.
In Orleans Parish, non-violent misdemeanors like possession of marijuana will now be handled much like a traffic ticket. Offenders will likely be ordered to show up in court and pay a fine.
That's because the City Council voted Thursday to allow officers to issue a summons, rather than arrest people for certain misdemeanors, including possession of marijuana, prostitution, fleeing from an officer and interfering with a law enforcement investigation.
The idea is to free up prison space for more violent criminals, and to free up officers so they can spend more time on the streets.
"We were spending a lot of time arresting people for municipal offenses that other municipalities don't arrest people for," said Councilman John Johnson.
"At the end of the day, we're all working very hard to try and keep this city safe. These reforms that are taking place are helping us get to that objective," said council president Arnie Fielkow.
Officials say the move can also save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars that would otherwise be spent putting misdemeanor offenders behind bars, and will also help relieve case loads for the courts.
The district attorney's office already transferred many non-violent misdemeanor cases from criminal district court to municipal court earlier this year, but says the City Council's move is the next step to creating a more efficient criminal justice system.
"This is a progressive reform for our criminal justice system, which is exciting, and I think the people of the city should be excited about that," said Chris Bowman, assistant Orleans Parish district attorney.
According to Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, there's been a long-held sentiment in Orleans Parish that people must be arrested to take an offense seriously.
But he said the City Council's move shows that belief is changing.
"Certainly we as part of the criminal justice system want to focus on the serious cases, so I hope folks don't get the wrong impression. This is not a legalization of anything, this is simply a more rational look at crime, being smart on crime, as opposed to just arresting everybody and letting us all sort it out in court," said Bunton.
In the end, officials say, they hope amending the city's code will result in a safer city and a more fair criminal justice system for all.
Although the way officers can handle affected misdemeanors is changing, the penalties remain the same.