Last week Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told WWL-TV that he feels victims of violent crimes, including domestic abuse and sexual assault, are “wrong” for refusing to testify in their cases. In making his case for the use of a material witness warrant to compel a rape victim to testify against their attacker, Cannizzaro said, "Is it more important for this witness to be inconvenienced for a very short period of time or is it better for the community to get the violent offender off the streets and keep him off the streets?"
Cannizzaro’s assertion that being jailed for a week is a mere inconvenience displays both a striking lack of empathy for the victims and a lack of understanding of the realities of incarceration.
Jailing people who refuse to testify against their abusers or attackers not only compounds the trauma they are already experiencing, it effectively criminalizes the innocent for having been victimized. Sexual assault survivors are already unlikely to report, due to a widespread culture of victim-blaming; given the knowledge that their report may end in their own incarceration, survivors will become even less likely to seek help from police. Cannizzarro’s strategy, far from improving public safety, will actively harm it.
Further, as has been shown with debtors’ prison practices, jailing victims for even a few days can cause lasting damage to their lives, impacting their families, their employment, and their physical and mental health. While incarcerated, they are put at risk of further physical and sexual violence. This is not, as the district attorney claims, a small price to pay.
DA Cannizzaro needs to find a better solution to keep violent offenders off the streets than choosing to re-victimize those who have already suffered enough.