COVINGTON— District Attorney Warren Montgomery marked his first year in office this week by noting a number of accomplishments that have helped to create an overall more professional, competent, and ethical operation.
“It has been my honor and privilege to serve the people of Washington and St. Tammany parishes the past year,” said Montgomery, who became the first newly-elected District Attorney in 30 years when he was sworn into office this time last year. “I’ve tried to implement positive changes that will transform not just the image of the office, but the way it functions. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, but we still have much work to do to get where we want to be.”
That goal, Montgomery said, is to be the best District Attorney’s Office in the state by the end of his six-year term.
In addition to putting together a well-qualified team, Montgomery said he focused early on administrative changes that would improve the way the office is run. For the first time in recent memory, the 2016 budget is in complete compliance with legal requirements. Also, to comply with state legislative mandates, the District Attorney’s Office submitted for review its policies and procedures, including those regarding the use of office credit cards. An external review of monthly credit card statements resulted in a clean bill of health for this administration.
Other administrative changes over the past year have included the adoption of direct deposit of paychecks for the District Attorney’s employees, a computerized daily time and attendance verification system, and a comprehensive employee policy and procedures manual. The manual also addresses shortcomings that had been identified by a 2014 legislative audit of the previous administration and sets clear, written vacation and sick leave policies for non-clerical workers, who follow parish government guidelines.
New Screening Department and Bond Hearing Process
Among the more significant changes in the Criminal Division was the creation of the Screening Department. The enhanced unit now includes a supervisor, three-full-time prosecutors, an additional prosecutor who screens cases in Washington Parish part-time, and three law enforcement officers on loan to the District Attorney’s Office—two from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office and one from the Slidell Police Department—and various support staff. The officers, based in the District Attorney’s Office, represent the kind of interagency cooperation that will strengthen the prosecutorial process, Montgomery said.
The new department replaced a one-person operation through which thousands of cases were submitted for review under the previous administration. The new, more thorough screening process was established to assure that formal charges are appropriate for the crime and to weed out cases in which prosecutors are unable to meet their burden of proof. The new system prevents potentially innocent people from sitting in jail unnecessarily. It also reduces the negotiating advantage that defense attorneys used in past years to leverage seemingly good sentencing deals for their clients. Now, with greater scrutiny initially, all evidentiary materials, including audio and video tapes, have been examined even before the case reaches the trial stage. As a result, the cases are more airtight and trial-ready, and prosecutors are less likely to negotiate reduced charges. A new plea review process put in place last year is aimed at ensuring that plea offers are based solely on the factors of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history, and not on any personal or political connections to the District Attorney’s office.
Other changes give prosecutors more immediate access to information on criminal cases. For the first time, the District Attorney’s Office has electronic access to all crime lab reports, as well as draft and final police reports, in the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office database. Montgomery said such access will assist his team in meeting one of his overall goals: swifter justice.
Likewise, beginning in mid-January, prosecutors will participate in 72-hour bond hearings. By law, a defendant must be brought before a judge within 72 hours to determine whether bond will be set in the case. Those hearings, often held in the parish jail, have in the past involved just law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, and judges. However, prosecutors attending the hearings soon will be able to connect to law enforcement officers earlier in the legal process to begin learning the details of sometimes complex cases. This will notify the District Attorney’s Office of cases sometimes 120 days sooner than before. Prosecutors also will help to assure that a defendant’s national criminal history, not just the information available in the local criminal database, is provided to the judge before a bond decision is made.
More Focus on Domestic Violence Cases
The Montgomery administration also last year intensified the focus on domestic violence cases. In past years, a single prosecutor handled 400-plus active domestic violence cases, but two additional Assistant District Attorneys were assigned last year to share the domestic violence caseload. The section changed the way cases were handled by implementing “vertical prosecution,” in which the prosecutor who makes initial contact with the victim and witnesses in a case also screens and prosecutes it. Such consistency is crucial in building trust with victims and witnesses.
The added focus on domestic violence cases is yielding good results. During the last week of December, for example, all three prosecutors in the unit went to trial and won their cases. The results were incarceration for two defendants and home incarceration over a period of four years for another.
Increase in Child Support Collections
For the office’s Non-Support division, last year ended on a high note with an increase in child support collections of $373,742.06 more than the amount collected in 2014. The total amount of support collected in Washington/St. Tammany parishes grew in 2015 to nearly $20 million.
In addition, the division finished the year ahead of the state in the percentage of cases in which paternity was established and those in which child support orders were put in place. The biggest growth occurred in St. Tammany, where child support orders were up 7.3 percent.
New Pre-Trial Intervention Pilot Program
One new initiative implemented last year by the Montgomery administration was even aimed at helping certain defendants. The office expanded the reach of its Pre-trial Intervention Program (Diversion) by waiving or reducing fees for impoverished defendants who qualify (primarily non-violent, first-time offenders) but are unable to afford the associated fees. The program offers delayed prosecution and the possibility of dismissing criminal charges for participants who meet all of the prescribed conditions. Those conditions, aimed at deterring future criminal behavior, include a range of options, such as random drug screening, community service, parenting classes, driver’s education courses, substance abuse treatment, anger management programs, and more. In the past, some offenders who qualified were unable to participate because they could not afford the program fees, which depend on a wide range of factors. Waiving or reducing the fees in some cases helps to equalize access to the program.
In addition, the Diversion program now requires program participants with sobriety issues to use a state-of-the-art alcohol detection device. The new SCRAM remote alcohol breath test provides a more accurate way to keep track of whether the identified program participants are refraining from alcohol use.
Change has been widespread in the office, including in the Misdemeanor/Traffic and Juvenile divisions, which also have improved operations by screening cases more thoroughly, contacting victims and witnesses from the outset, and utilizing law enforcement tools that had not been used previously. Fewer traffic tickets are being amended, and any adjustment is based on driving history and the facts surrounding the ticket, instead of personal connections.
Finally, Montgomery said, the office is operating in a more transparent manner with a full-time public information officer and an attorney assigned to handle public records requests. Montgomery also has maintained an open-door policy, meeting daily with constituents and traveling throughout Washington and St. Tammany parishes to address community groups.
“We’ve been very busy,” Montgomery added. “These are just a few of the highlights. Of course, we have some challenges ahead, but overall, it’s been a very good year.”