On a warm sunny afternoon in New Orleans, I sat down with Judge Arthur Hunter (Ret.) to discuss his platform and campaign to become the next District Attorney of Orleans Parish. Hunter, presents with a soft-spoken mild-mannered demeanor, but underneath those character traits is a man passionate about reforming the city of New Orleans. Hunter’s mission is “to set a new standard and a national example by enhancing public safety in New Orleans through respect, equality, fairness, accountability, and opportunity.”
Hunter is a native New Orleanian who grew up in New Orleans East. He is a graduate of St. Augustine High School and attended Loyola University for both his undergraduate matriculation and law school. He served the city as an officer with the New Orleans Police Department before practicing law. He was first elected judge in 1996, a position he held for over two decades. He is married and has two grandchildren fathered by his son. He is a long-time member of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.
The interview covered a range of topics related to Hunter’s plans for the DA’s office including reentry/diversion, smart on crime tactics, marijuana, mental health, defunding the police and the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office. An amended video of the interview is located at the top of the page.
He defined his desire to be district attorney as a way of reforming a system that is not working effectively or efficiently. “I realized very quickly, if you want to have an impact on the entire criminal justice system, then you need to be district attorney…the district attorney is the leader of the criminal justice system” Hunter said. He continued, “what I want to do, if it’s a non-violent minor charge, if you have a mental health problem, if you have a drug opioid abuse problem, I want to send you to one of those specialty courts.” Hunter stated that he also wanted to partner with Delgado and case managers to assist formerly incarcerated individuals with reentry into society. Hunter stated, “I’m going to target 18–25-year olds, who don’t have a high school degree and partner with Delgado to get them the educational part but also have case managers to make sure that they not only receive that educational part but also receive the education of the mind as well.” Hunter’s goal is to incorporate skilled trade attainment and individuals obtaining proper socialization skills into the reentry program. The program would be modeled after the reentry program he started while serving as judge for Section K in Criminal District Court. “In July of 2010, myself, Judge White, Burl Cain from Angola, Congressman Cedric Richmond(who was a state representative at the time), Sheriff Marlon Gusman…we created that reentry program for those 18–25 year olds without a GED, non-violent offense and we sent them to Angola for a minimum of two years…while there they obtained a skill trade along with also getting their minds right…the value of work, taking care of your family, taking care of yourself and also the skilled guys that taught them plumbing, electrical, carpentry, etc.”
Tough on Crime vs. Smart on Crime
Hunter envisions a smart approach to the criminal justice system. “Tough on crime, I’ve done that. I have sent people to Angola for life sentences because they needed to go. But also, I am more concerned about being smart on crime. By being smart on crime you are being proactive…by being smart on crime you are preventing people from being harmed, hurt, or killed.” Hunter exampled this by his plan for wrap-around services in juvenile court. “That child comes in for truancy or some other charge…especially if it’s a nonviolent charge, I want that child, whoever is taking care of that child… parent or guardian, the judge, the assistant district attorney, the defense attorney, a social worker, (and) someone from that child’s school to come together to create a wholistic comprehensive plan for that child and any issues within the home as well. Once we start doing that, we will have less people going to Tulane and Broad five years later.”
Hunter has publicly stated that he will not prosecute simple marijuana possession cases. “In half the country medical or recreational use of marijuana is legal. It doesn’t make sense to prosecute those cases and take money and resources from more serious cases. Secondly, why would you give a young person a criminal record for smoking marijuana? It effects school, it effects employment…it just doesn’t make sense…it’s just not smart.”
Hunter took over Mental Health Court after Judge Calvin Johnson retired. In his tenure as Mental Health Court Judge, Hunter realized the importance of utilizing mental health resources for criminal defendants with a diagnosed mental health illness. Hunter stated “connecting people with mental health diagnosis to the treatment and the resources they need…many times they are there because they stopped taking their medication…But we found out that when we connected them to these services, they become better…I want to do here in New Orleans what they do in Miami. When the police are called to deal with someone with a mental health issue, they don’t take them to jail, they take them to a community mental health center where they can get the resources that they need. And once they complete that treatment successfully, the charges are dismissed.” He added, “it’s the carrot and the stick. We are going to give you an opportunity to do what you need to do but if you don’t those charges are still hanging over your head.”
Defunding the police
Hunter stated that he is against defunding the police. Hunter states, “what I am in favor of is directing more funding on the front end to reduce and prevent crime, being proactive rather than reactive…For every policeman you hire, you should hire a social worker as well. You save one person… you save the family…you save the family… you save the neighborhood…you save the neighborhood…you save the city,” Hunter stated.
Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office
The public defenders office has long been strapped for cash and at one point threatened that it might have to shut down or refuse cases due to budgetary concerns. Although, the nature of the DA’s office and the public defenders office is adversarial, Hunter stated when the chief public defender goes before the city council asking for funding “I will be sitting right next to him. Because if his office closes down nothing gets done. 85–95% of the cases at Tulane and Broad…those people are represented by the public defenders office. So basically, you are shutting down the criminal justice system if the public defenders office cannot…provide counsel for their clients.”