“The Criminal District Court judges for some reason blamed or took this out on the pretrial services program. What you can see very plainly, since around January, is a drop in use of the program.” Councilwoman Susan guidry, of the cuts to the amount of money the city gives to the court
Local bail bondsmen went before the New Orleans City Council on Friday to blast the city’s 18-month-old “pre-trial services” program, in what has become an annual scrap over an initiative to rid the Orleans Parish jail system of non-violent offenders who some say don’t need to stay locked up while awaiting trial.
Few on the council seemed persuaded that the program, which is run by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, poses a threat to taxpayers or public safety.
The joint hearing before the council’s Budget and Criminal Justice Committees came three days after Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed adding $100,000 to Vera’s budget for the program next year, placing it at $584,000.
The program gathers criminal, personal and family histories from new Criminal District Court defendants and assesses them for their likelihood to commit new offenses or skip court if released — the constitutional benchmarks for setting bail.
The goal is for the court’s magistrate judge and commissioners to set bonds or issue releases for non-violent offenders based on an actuarial risk ranking, rather than solely on the nature of their alleged crime.
Since it was launched last year, and even before, the Vera Institute program has riled local bondsmen, who may suffer financially if more defendants are released free of charge.
“What do they do for the city that’s worth $500-plus thousand dollars that the court doesn’t do already?” demanded bondsman Matt Dennis. “This is insanity.”
Landrieu’s office claims the program is a money-saver, to the tune of a few million dollars already, by helping reduce the number of pre-trial detainees being held in Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s jail at the city’s expense. According to the program’s figures, the pre-trial jail population declined by 300 in the first year.
The numbers, which the bondsmen questioned, are key. The city’s jail expert has based his cost and jail-size projections — key issues in negotiations with Gusman over pending jail reforms — in part on the program’s expected success.
But the number of pre-trial inmates, instead of continuing to slide, took an upward turn this year, rising by 200. And the percentage of arrestees who were assessed under the program and then ordered released on recognizance bonds, personal surety bonds or bonds of $2,500 or less, has slid dramatically.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry left no doubt that she suspects sabotage.
Early this year, miffed at court budget cuts, the Criminal Court judges voted behind closed doors to jettison Vera’s program, but then backed off. Ultimately, it is the court’s magistrate judge and four magistrate commissioners who decide on the initial bond for a defendant, regardless of Vera’s assessment.
“The Criminal District Court judges for some reason blamed or took this out on the pretrial services program,” Guidry said of the cuts to the amount of money the city gives to the court. “What you can see very plainly, since around January, is a drop in use of the program.”
Jon Wool, Vera’s New Orleans director, told the council there was no change in the types of cases coming before the magistrates, or in his program’s assessments and rankings.
“The number of people in the low-risk categories increased slightly in this year over last year,” Wool said. “There’d be nothing in the mix of defendants in terms of their risk score that would” account for the decline.
Former Magistrate Commissioner Harry Cantrell, who is in a three-way race for magistrate judge in Saturday’s election, denied any shady business.
“No, no. I don’t think that’s the case,” Cantrell said, adding that he considered Vera’s assessments but didn’t necessarily accept its conclusions in making his decisions on bonds.
Cantrell suggested that the lower percentages might have been due to a shift last year of a slew of misdemeanor cases to Municipal Court. Those cases would have been among the most likely to result in a very low bail or a recognizance bond.
The program came under fire this year when it was learned that Akein Scott, one of the alleged shooters in the Mother’s Day melee that injured 19 second-line revelers, had received a low rank — 3 out of a possible 24 — after an arrest in March for possessing heroin and a gun with an extended magazine. In that case, Cantrell didn’t follow Vera’s advice, setting a $35,000 bail that was higher than the Vera ranking would have suggested.
Dennis, the bail bondsman, said Scott still would rank as just a 6 under Vera’s formula, even after the Mother’s Day shooting.
“Telly Hankton’s an 8. Ted Bundy’s a 3,” Dennis argued. “You say you can evaluate someone to tell if they’re a risk. I can’t do that, and I’ve been doing this for 21 years.”
The program, however, claims verifiable results: no new offenses or failures to appear in court for at least 95 percent of the defendants released at their first court appearance. It also has strong support from both District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and the public defender’s office.
“It’s only wise and smart to see if we can get the persons who aren’t going to be treated as serious criminals and expedite their exit from the system at the earliest possible moment,” said First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin.
According to Vera’s figures, there’s plenty of room to improve. Of the 87 inmates it gave a risk score between zero and 3, 24 spent more than 70 days in jail.
One speaker, 24-year-old Robert Johnson, said he spent more than two weeks behind bars on a pair of misdemeanors after a scrap with a police officer in 2011.
Johnson, the kind of inmate whom the program aims to free, said he couldn’t afford the $10,000 baild that Cantrell set and support his children, too.
“I sat in jail just to make sure to have a roof over their head and food in their mouths,” Johnson said.
While in jail, he said, he lost his job at a French Quarter restaurant. He later pleaded guilty and received credit for time served.