By Alix Tarnowsky, Greater New Orleans Regional Director
This election cycle, Louisiana voters are pulling the lever for more than just their preferred presidential candidate. For many in Louisiana, they are also voting for a number of local officials. It can be easy to gloss over down-ballot candidates; however, it’s important that we recognize that our locally elected officials often have a greater impact on our day-to-day lives than those on a national level. One official that can have a huge impact in your community is the District Attorney.
What is the role of the District Attorney?
The District Attorney is an elected official who acts as a prosecutor for a court in a particular district. The District Attorney and their prosecutors (known as Assistant District Attorneys) hold powerful positions in the criminal justice system. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for reviewing the evidence of a case brought forth by law enforcement, deciding what formal charges will be made against the person accused of a crime, and then deciding if that case will proceed to a trial.
According to the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “a district attorney determines the policies and procedures that dictate how cases are prosecuted in a county, how diversion programs are implemented, how plea deals are negotiated, and ultimately how many residents sit behind bars.”
District Attorneys and Sexual Assault Cases
STAR’s roots are in the 19th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Louisiana. Our organization began as the Rape Crisis Center, which was established as a division of the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in 1975. In 2012, with the support of District Attorney Hillar Moore, the organization transitioned into a 501c3 nonprofit and rebranded as STAR.
As a nonprofit sexual assault agency, STAR staff and the survivors we serve continue to interact with the District Attorney and their office in a multitude of ways. First, we work in collaboration with law enforcement and prosecutors to ensure that survivors who decide to pursue a criminal investigation are provided with the information and resources needed to stay informed of their case. Second, once a survivor’s case proceeds to prosecution, a survivor can request their STAR advocate act as a liaison between them and the District Attorney’s office including accompanying the survivor to meetings and court proceedings. Finally, members of the District Attorney’s Office participate in multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) and sexual assault response team (SART) meetings that include advocates, forensic nurses, law enforcement, and prosecutors.
The procedures and actions of District Attorney’s offices routinely impact survivors’ health and healing. To report an assault, survivors first endure a long process of reporting their assault to law enforcement and receiving an invasive forensic medical exam. Unfortunately, even when law enforcement presents evidence for a case, District Attorney’s Offices often elect not to proceed with prosecution of these cases. To be informed that the District Attorney did not accept their case for prosecution can be retraumatizing and detrimental to a survivor’s healing process.
Furthermore, there is no centralized database to retrieve information about the number of cases submitted to the District Attorney versus the number of cases prosecuted, therefore it is difficult to know how many sexual assault cases are presented to, accepted by, or declined by your local District Attorney’s Office each year. In a given year, STAR may respond to hundreds of call-outs to meet survivors of rape at the hospital for their forensic exams, yet there may only be a handful of cases that end up prosecuted by District Attorney’s Offices. In the absence of mandates to make this information public, our communities deserve District Attorneys who are committed to serving their constituents in a transparent way.
What You Can Do
There are a few things you can do. Take the time to read up about the candidates running for District Attorney in your community and talk to your friends and family about the role and candidates. Consider that advocating for survivors of sexual assault includes demanding transparency about how sexual assault cases are being handled in our communities. Most importantly, know that you can take steps to hold your community’s District Attorney accountable to following their policies and if their policies don’t align with your views, get involved by educating yourself and others, and be sure to cast your vote on November 3rd.