Government & Politics
 

Criminal, municipal and traffic court judges all say they need more money from city

After two hours of discussion, judges from the Criminal District Court left the City Council’s annual budget hearing Monday afternoon without a clear resolution to their cash shortfall.

The judges said they are spending $65,000 per month more now than they receive in funding and are facing an $863,000 budget deficit in 2014.

“We can’t sustain that deficit,” said Curtis Moret, an outside certified public accountant who keeps the court’s books.

The judges seconded Moret’s point, with Chief Judge Camille Buras warning, “We’re budgeting ourselves into a bigger problem. We’re cutting ourselves where we’re hurting the people we say we’re trying to help.”

“Crime is our top priority in the city of New Orleans,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said.

But neither the judges nor the seven City Council members offered a solution as they discussed Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2014 budget. The council must approve a budget by Dec. 1 so it can take effect Jan. 1.

Instead, they spent much of their time discussing Vera Institute of Justice’s pretrial services program — set to receive $584,000 in Landrieu’s proposal — that gives judges a report meant to help them decide whether to release accused criminals from jail before they go trial.

Council members Susan Guidry, Jackie Clarkson and Stacy Head expressed support for the program, saying that it allowed non-violent people to go free before trial and save the city money the cost of keeping them locked up.

The judges expressed skepticism that the pre-trial services program is worth its cost. They said they would rather see the judiciary control the program.

Council member Cynthia Head-Morrell wondered whether the City Council could eliminate Vera’s role and use the savings to solve the judges’ budget shortfall.

The city money is a small part of the Criminal Court’s budget; the judges get the rest of their money from a variety of state, federal and nonprofit sources.

To deal with the budget problems, Buras told the council members that the judges have reduced staff salaries and not filled 15 vacant positions.

Robert Kazik, the court’s Judicial Administrator, said they no longer have a Vietnamese or Spanish translator and have eliminated the person who ran the program that drug tests the court’s own personnel. Another budget cut eliminated two staffers who assisted victims of domestic violence.

In an interview afterward, Buras said the judges have enough money to get through the rest of 2013.

“After that, there won’t be anywhere to turn to cut,” she said

What will the judges do?

“We’d have to reassess with the council.”

District Attorney’s Office

In sharp contrast, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr. said he has no complaints about the amount of money his office would get from the Landrieu administration in 2014, which is the same amount as in 2013: $6.2 million.

Cannizzaro said his office has achieved a close working relationship with Landrieu, the City Council and the Police Department. One result, he said, is that his office is now prosecuting 85 percent of the cases brought by the police department, up from 50 percent several years ago.

Municipal Court

Landrieu’s 2014 budget may give the New Orleans Municipal Court a bit more money, but its not nearly as much as the court needs, Chief Judge Desiree Charbonnet said.

“It will cost $4 million to fund the court. The city is offering $2 million,” she said. “If we are not funded, Municipal Court will come to a screeching halt sometime between the third and fourth quarter of next year.”

The court, which handles all misdemeanors and violations of municipal code for the city, sees 33,000 cases per year or 80 percent of every criminal matter initiated by the New Orleans Police Department, Charbonnet said. The city’s $2 million offer works out to about $60 per case.

The Landrieu Administration has proposed that the court use its own money to make up the difference, including about $600,000 from its judicial expense fund — collected from court fees to pay the court’s operational expenses — and about $670,000 from the building and maintenance fund — collected from a $5 fee on all convictions to pay for courthouse repairs. The latter would require a new municipal ordinance because the fund is not supposed to be used for general operations.

This will be the second year Landrieu has asked the court to use the money to offset significant budget cuts.

“We have used every dollar available to pay for that deficit,” Charbonnet said.

She added that if the court runs out of money in the middle of the year and suspends or delays trials, the city will be subject to expensive litigation from defendants.

Charbonnet suggested taking some of Landrieu’s $938,000 proposed allocation from the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s office to pay for the Municipal Court, saying the office should be funded entirely by the state. Councilwoman Susan Guidry pointed out that the court wouldn’t be able to function properly if indigent defendants were denied counsel.

“What would happen if the public defender weren’t funded?” she asked. “What would happen if it couldn’t work in your court? You’d come to a screeching halt, right?”

Charbonnet also suggested defunding  to help cover her budget. The two-year-old program screens arrestees to determine flight risk and risk of reoffending before their bond hearings. The goal is to increase non-financial bonds and decrease the number of low-risk inmates in Orleans Parish Prison. It has come under criticism from judges and the commercial bail industry.

Charbonnet called the program “duplicative” of information judges already get from the District Attorney’s Office and defense lawyers. She also noted that accused Mother’s Day shooter Akein Scott was rated low-risk and given a low bond for a March drug and gun arrest.

Council members, most of whom have been supportive of the Vera program, were largely dismissive of the idea, saying the program has helped to save money and reduce overcrowding at the troubled jail. Councilman James Gray cited a recent report from jail expert James Austin, who said New Orleans likely has the highest incarceration rate of any major city in the country.

“We need to make sure the judges are taking as close a look as possible to make sure we are not incarcerating the wrong people,” Gray said.

Traffic Court

The Traffic Court’s total budget is significantly higher than its modest city allocation. Its total fee and fine collections total about $12 million per year, but most of that is paid out to other entities, such as the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office. The money dedicated to court operations, about $4.2 million, is generated mostly from ticket fees.

Still, according to a budget presentation by Judge Mark Shea, the court will operate at a deficit of about $200,000 next year and will have to dip into its shrinking reserve fund. That stood at about $1.6 million at the beginning of this year, according to the court’s budget request, down from $3.3 million at the beginning of 2011, according to its most recent audit.

Shea and other court employees argued for a change in the way the court is funded, saying they are in favor of a long-proposed ordinance that transfers the court’s revenues to city control. He said the current funding, which is based on conviction fees and allows the court to set its own spending limits, creates a conflict of interest for judges and is likely unconstitutional. City Hall, on the other hand, would be able to set a budget based on need rather than income.

Most of the court’s funds, about $3.1 million, go to salaries and fringe benefits. New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux recently argued for the elimination of the court, telling state legislators that it is a “useless appendage,” according to a report by Nola.com/The Times-Picayune.

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