NEW ORLEANS (AP) — City Council members in New Orleans were set to discuss a resolution Thursday calling for an end to the jailing of sexual assault or domestic violence victims who resist testifying against their suspected assailants.
An independent New Orleans watchdog group, Court Watch NOLA, condemned the practice of "material witness" arrests in a report released in 2017. A representative of the organization is expected to testify at Thursday's council meeting.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office said in a Wednesday news release that its review shows that, in the last five years, only 28 people have been taken into custody on material witness warrants, which can result in jail, or the threat of jail, for victims who won't cooperate.
"Of that number, 21 were involved in cases of murder or attempted murder; two involved sex crimes," the statement said.
It said the warrants are sought from a judge when the witness's testimony is deemed crucial to keep dangerous offenders locked up.
Court Watch NOLA, which uses volunteers to monitor court cases, acknowledges in its last report on the practice that it diminished from 2016 to 2017.
The report said that out of a total of 19 material witness warrants issued in 2016, one was for a domestic violence victim and three were for victims of sex crimes. The practice diminished in 2017, when the organization found only one material witness warrant for a domestic violence victim out of seven such warrants issued. Figures for 2018 were not available.
Court Watch NOLA has called for an end to the arrest and jailing of domestic violence and sex crime victims and a protocol for the use of material witness warrants in other cases that would weigh factors including safety and emotional trauma of the victim.
Opponents of the practice also filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2017.
That lawsuit said one plaintiff was jailed for five days on a material witness warrant after declining to pursue charges against a man who shattered her cell phone during a fight. It said another plaintiff, a victim of sex trafficking, was jailed for more than 100 days on a material witness warrant.