“I didn’t come into this job saying that I know everything, I’m constantly learning,” Caddo Parish District Attorney, James E. Stewart, Sr. said, reflecting on his first year. “I’m always absorbing new information and I try to be open- minded. What I have realized is that you must be open-minded to learn. I don’t make decisions in a vacuum. I reach out to get all the information that I can. I’ve been humble enough to reach out to people to do some things. That’s a really good thing about this job. There are people with some skill sets that I can reach out to that truly help me. I didn’t expect the D.A.’s office to have as large of a footprint that it does in terms of all the things it’s doing, particularly the services we provide to the community that don’t involve prosecuting cases. But I have not embraced that.”
Following the passing of former Caddo District Attorney Charles Rex Scott, in April 2015, Stewart was able to capture 55% of the vote in the ensuing election.
Utilizing an approximate budget of $8 million, incorporating 100 employees in five different divisions (Appellate, Child Support, Criminal, Hot Check and Traffic Divisions) Stewart told The Sun in a recent interview that he feels positive about the past year and where the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office is heading in the future. “We have tried to pursue a level of professionalism and ethics wrapped in spirituality,” Stewart said regarding the 7000 plus cases worked on by his office in the last year.
“Also we have a very diverse office with a lot of different persuasions. We are out here to serve even though we know that we are not perfect. We know that we are capable of making mistakes but we try to over-come those mistakes and move forward. We try to return calls, and help people as best we can; and there are some things that we simply cannot do. We are not the judge and the jury. We are the prosecutors and we have to do our jobs. We know that we will never reach perfection, but we still strive for it.”
“When we got here we had three people working in the Victim Assistance Program. Now it’s six,” Stewart said reviewing some of the efforts the District Attorney’s office is making to help victims of crime after the fact. “I created a Special Victims Unit that deals with sexual assault victims and domestic violence, as well as a victim’s assistant in Juvenile Court. We have reached out to give people information on how to get help, including a billboard campaign that has resulted in tripling the number of protective orders that have been issued. We started the truancy program. Our efforts are particularly focused of helping women and children. We find that they are the most vulnerable to issues of crime and end up needing the most help.”
He says that his office has spent a considerable amount of time pooling resources and solidifying meaningful working relationships with the law enforcement agencies in the region and around the state. “We are law enforcement. We are just not first responders. However, first responders are dependent on us. This helps us to realize that working together is the best way to operate. I meet and talk with the sheriff on a regular basis; I meet and talk with the mayor and the chief of Shreveport’s Police Department. We have meetings with the State Police and we talk with the rural agencies. We have reached out to other D.A. offices around the state – seeing what things we can bring to Caddo in an effort to help. We have found that when you get caught up in egos that is when you stop serving the people. All of us are public servants. We just have different jobs.”
Stewart noted that a priority was changing the perception of how his offices pursued death penalty cases in the last year, in comparison to the previous administration. “We decided that our goal was not to kill more people. Our goal is to bring justice, a sense of safety and security to Caddo Parish. Death penalty cases were a hot topic here and nationally, but in my opinion this office (previously) was inconsistent with what goes on with the rest of Louisiana and the country to a certain extent. When we looked at the cases that were currently set as death penalty cases, we decided that a lot of them were not worth it. They did not fit the category of the worst cases and that is the criteria that death penalty cases should fall under. We want death penalty cases to be extreme because 87% of death penalty cases are reversed. No one has been executed in Caddo Parish since 1988; a woman has not been executed since 1948. Right now there is a moratorium on the death penalty that will stand until at least 2018. That may even be extended because the drugs used in the process are not available. We have evaluated all the cases, had new people to come in prioritizing the cases that we need to. Trying some and making room for plea-bargains for other, and getting rid of the cases that can’t go as we move forward.”
Stewart also was very positive about those that work with him in the District Attorney’s office. “This is an avocation not a vocation. We don’t have any prima donnas. To work as a prosecutor you have to love what you are doing. The one thing that I have been blessed to have, and that’s how I know that God is really involved with this, is because he has put people in this office who have some very excellent skill sets. I am amazed at their passion for continuing to find ways to make this office as a whole work better. I am also amazed at the effort that is taken by those who work in this office to get out into the community and get to know the people they are serving, particularly in voluntary efforts.”
When dealing with the community, Stewart accepts the fact that not everyone will agree with the general policies and actions of the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office. “I learned a long time ago that you have to determine what is right. Once you make that determination, you just kind of go from there. We talk, we communicate, we express, and we listen – but the bottom line is that we have to make decisions that we know will affect people’s lives. However, as long as we are convinced that we are doing what is right within our entire scheme then we will be fine. Some people don’t accept that but that’s just the nature of what we do.”
By Ronald Collins Jr.
via The Shreveport Sun