The credibility our justice system enjoys relies on the ethical behavior of those entrusted with its operation.

And, when that ethical behavior comes into question, the public deserves answers.

Such is the case in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, where prosecutors have made a practice of issuing false subpoenas aimed at pressuring potential witnesses into testifying.

It is easy to understand that zealous prosecutors want witnesses to come forward and to testify in criminal cases. But they cannot be allowed to lie to those witnesses in that effort.

That is exactly what the Southern Poverty Law Center says happened when the District Attorney’s Office for Orleans Parish sent out documents labeled as subpoenas — orders, signed by judges, that compel the participation of witnesses — even though they had not been approved by judges. The false subpoenas, the SPLC says, threatened witnesses with fines or jail time if they failed to comply.

In Jefferson Parish, meanwhile, prosecutors had a practice of sending witnesses documents that ordered them to appear at the DA’s office. That, too, is improper.

Both district attorneys’ offices say they have stopped the practice of lying to and threatening potential witnesses.

But the SPLC wants those who were responsible for the dishonest behavior to be held accountable.

And they should be.

“District attorneys have almost unchecked discretion in our criminal justice system,” said SPLC Deputy Legal Director Lisa Graybill. “As Louisianans work to reform the state’s criminal justice system and shed the title of incarceration capital of the world, district attorneys must be held accountable when they abuse the public’s trust.”

This is not the first time prosecutors’ actions in Orleans Parish have been questioned.

Court Watch NOLA issued a report in April that detailed that office’s practice of jailing witnesses and victims who are reluctant to testify in trials.

The pursuit of justice is important — to the people who are involved in each case and to the larger community. But in that pursuit, our prosecutors should never lie to, intimidate or jail witnesses or victims who are unable or unwilling to testify.

Those people should experience sympathy at the hands of the court system, not its brute force, and certainly not intimidation that relies on deception.

The SPLC has filed a complaint with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board citing the two offices’ practices. Let’s hope both cooperate in the effort to find those responsible and encourage the responsible treatment of crime victims and witnesses.

Crime is a terrible problem across our state. But prosecutors don’t make their jobs any easier by making life more difficult for those who have been directly affected by crime.

 

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, not of any individual.