Zurik: Over 880 people, some violent offenders, released without charges in 2021
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In January, New Orleans Police asked for help finding Jeffery Solomon. He’s accused of an armed robbery in the Central Business District. New Orleans Police said he beat the victim with a metal pipe, before robbing them and running away.
Court records show that just days before the armed robbery, Solomon was in custody. He was accused of attempted armed robbery, aggravated second-degree battery, and criminal damage to property. However, the law forced a magistrate judge to release Solomon, and days later, police say he was responsible for the violent attack in the CBD.
The law that forced the judge to release Solomon is known in the legal community as a 701 release. The State Criminal Code gives defendants the right to a speedy trial. It sets a time limit on how long the district attorney must file charges. In most felony cases, if the DA fails to bring charges, the defendant is released from jail after 60 days behind bars. If the defendant is out on bond, in most cases, they are released from their bond obligations after 150 days.
Court records show Solomon made his first court appearance on November 19, 2021. Without any charges filed, two months later, on January 19, 2022, he was released from jail.
Solomon’s release was not an isolated incident. FOX 8 requested court records to track the number of 701 releases since 2017. The data shows the number of times a defendant was released from jail or bond obligations because the district attorney failed to bring charges in the required time has skyrocketed since Jason Williams took office in January of 2021.
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According to the numbers, the city is on pace to have nearly 1,400 701 releases in 2022. That’s concerning to one New Orleans city councilmember.
“That just tells you that something is drastically different. And I mean, it’s not a factor of five or six. You’re talking 700 more that are happening in that year alone,” said Joe Giarusso. “And you can’t just explain it away by saying COVID is a problem, the courts are a problem, ability to function with people is a problem. When you have repeat offenders in particular and significant ones, people are going to be upset about it.”
In July 2021, the New Orleans Police Department announced significant violent crime arrests. Among them, Sean Walsh was booked with aggravated battery by shooting. However, months later, Walsh was released from bond obligations without facing any charges.
In January, Williams held a news conference announcing major indictments related to a one-day crime spree. At that press conference, Williams said Camron Bryant took part in a string of carjackings in neighborhoods across New Orleans. Records show the NOPD had arrested Bryant last year for attempted first-degree murder. However, the D.A.’s office never brought charges, and in July, Bryant was released from jail. A few months after his 701 release, the D.A.’s office refused charges against Bryant, but as we mentioned, the D.A. filed new charges this year on a different alleged crime.
FOX 8 found people arrested for crimes including murder, carjackings, and battery of a police officer all essentially timed out of bond obligations, and in many cases, were released from jail.
Actor and anti-crime advocate Ameer Baraka says the numbers show the criminal justice system isn’t working.
“We’re just letting people out of the door. We say okay, well, you know, we don’t have enough information. Listen, I don’t know if they’re short on prosecutors back there,” said Baraka.
Baraka is no stranger to the criminal justice system. When he wasn’t yet a teenager, he skipped school to help drug dealers, and eventually served time for drug and gun offenses. However, Baraka turned his life around, and now he’s a successful actor. He says the number of recent 701 releases is appalling.
“We need adequate people on deck to read these cases, to investigate these cases, and make sure we can pin these people down,” Baraka said. In an interview with FOX 8, Williams downplayed the increase in the numbers.
“Look at 2016, how many there were then compared to 2018. I think that number jumps up by over 100. And you look at 2021, that number is higher than it was in 2020,” Williams said. “There’s a lot that’s changed in 2021. I don’t think anyone would ever dispute that. There have been unprecedented developments in this particular year.”
Williams says the developments include COVID’s impact on the courts, an increase in crime across the city, and a spike in domestic violence cases.
FOX 8 found 29% of the 701 releases appear to be domestic cases. That includes releases of suspects arrested for domestic abuse battery, domestic abuse strangulation, and domestic abuse of a child.
“They’re very difficult cases to prove,” Williams said. “Because oftentimes, the survivor is not sure, or is anxious about coming forward and testifying. There are a number of cases in which a survivor has told us everything that has happened but goes ghost and is not willing to respond to the calls [or] is not willing to come to court and testify.”
Williams says his 701 release numbers are higher than his predecessor Leon Cannizzaro because he runs his office differently and isn’t accepting as many cases.
“OPDA and one of these earlier years, will accept 90% of cases and when you’re accepting 90% of something, there is no individualized screening that goes in because you predetermined that 90% of the things that come in will be accepted regardless of whether or not there’s good evidence... regardless of whether or not it’s a case that can actually survive in criminal district court,” said Williams. “But what we’re doing is what D.A.s have been doing around the state and around the country... is taking each file and doing an individualized screening assessment to determine if this is a case that we can move forward successfully in criminal district court.”
According to a document provided by Williams, only 52 of the 885 releases involved violent criminals released from jail.
“I would encourage a listener or stakeholder to look at what we have to focus on, which is protecting the public from violent offenders. And we’re doing that at a 99% clip. And I would charge anyone to compare those numbers to 2017 or 2018 or 2015. Now, there might be fewer 701 numbers in terms of across the board. But how many individuals charged with violent crimes were getting out? And we’re doing it, I think, better than any in recent history,” Williams said.
However, FOX 8′s review of that document showed cases that were unaccounted for. That included Dominique Augustine, 25, who was booked with second-degree murder in December 2020. Records show she was released from jail in May.
A number of other people charged with felonies who were released from jail in 2022 are also missing from the D.A.’s spreadsheet. That includes Rochard Sabatier. In February 2021, police booked him with simple burglary. In April, the D.A. refused charges. Then in July, Sabatier ended up back in police custody when he was arrested for first-degree robbery. Once again, the D.A. refused charges. In November, police arrested Sabatier for carjacking. Two months later, in January of this year, Sabatier got out of jail on a 701 release.
Williams says his priority is violent crime and says a 701 release doesn’t mean violent offenders are back on the street. Regardless, some court watchers say the releases are a sign that the D.A.’s office is taking too long to dispose of cases.
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