As city leaders debate how much to fund the program meant to reduce the number of pretrial detainees in Orleans Parish Prison, Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker has handed down an order requiring financial bonds for any defendant set to be tried in his court.
Parker’s order means that every defendant must put up a bond or pay a bail bondsman to get out of jail before trial — including arrestees that the Vera Institute’s pretrial services program rates as low-risk for fleeing or being re-arrested. The only exception is if Parker authorizes it in writing.
The judge’s reasoning, as spelled out in the Oct. 1 order: “There have been several career criminals, dangerous criminals, and/or multiple felony offenders who have been released from custody” on non-financial bonds.
“Think of the discrimination here,” said New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, a proponent of pretrial services and chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. “A poor defendant who happens to have his case allotted to Judge Parker’s section would not have a chance of getting … a bail that doesn’t involve paying money.”
Guidry said Parker forwarded the order to each member of the New Orleans City Council just before it started hearings on the city’s 2014 budget.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has proposed a budget of $584,000 for pretrial services; it’s included in his office’s budget and will be part of a review Wednesday morning. That is $100,000 above this year’s budget.
The budget for Criminal District Court, on the other hand, was cut by 30 percent this year. The proposed 2014 budget would keep its funding at the current level.
“I don’t know what the message was” in sending the order, Guidry said. In any case, she said, the program is supported by the mayor and the council.
Parker issued a similar order in October 2012, unreported at the time. Guidry said she did not know if the policy has been in effect since then.
Though Parker’s secretary said he was interested in commenting on the issue, he did not respond to repeated email and phone messages. Criminal District Court Judicial Administrator Robert Kazik did not respond to questions about the policy, including whether other judges have issued similar orders.
Vera program aims to base bail on flight, arrest risk
The pretrial services program, run since 2012 by the Vera Institute of Justice from Orleans Parish Prison’s Intake and Processing Center, evaluates arrestees’ likelihood of being arrested again or failing to appear in court. The program is supposed to ensure that inmates are released or detained based on that risk, not their ability to pay a sizable bail.
The program assigns each person a “risk score” based on his or her charges, criminal history and other factors. Those reports are provided to the magistrate or magistrate commissioner for reference in setting a bond.
Over the past two years, the service has been the subject of a coordinated opposition campaign by the commercial bail bond industry, a few local churches and an organization called ReviveNola, run by political consultant Kevin Stuart.
And, for the second year, the program has become a focus of debate during the city’s budget hearings. Judges with the Municipal Court and the Criminal District Court have recommended defunding pretrial services and using the savings to offset anticipated deficits to their own budgets during the current budget hearings.
Fewer inmates being released on low bonds
According to a Vera analysis, the percentage of arrestees who are assessed as low-risk and released on non-financial bonds or those under $2,500 has plummeted recently — from well over 30 percent in late 2012 and early 2013 to less than 20 percent in some recent months.
Meanwhile, as the size of Orleans Parish Prison has become a serious budget concern, the jail’s pretrial population, which reached a low of about 1,300 in April, was back up to about 1,500 in September.
“I’m not sure if that’s all attributable to a greater reticence on the part of the court. There are other things at play for sure,” said Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans office.
“There is pressure from certain groups, including the bail bondsmen, to do away with the program or diminish it,” he said. “There are certain high-profile cases, like Akein Scott, that would chill any magistrate.”
As NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported, the accused Mother’s Day second-line shooter had been rated low-risk after being arrested in March on five drug and illegal weapon charges. He was subsequently released on a $15,000 bond.
However, Wool said, the original recommended bond amount was $35,000. Scott spent nearly two months in jail, and a new bond of $15,000 was set in late April after all but one charge were dropped by Harry Cantrell, the magistrate commissioner, or refused by the District Attorney’s Office.
Guidry accuses judges of trying to sabotage the program
During an Oct. 18 joint meeting of the Criminal Justice and Budget Committees, Guidry accused the judges of trying to sabotage the program, according to a report in The Advocate.
Speaking at the meeting, Lori Eville of the National Institute of Corrections questioned the constitutionality of “blanket pretrial detention orders” from the court, though no one mentioned Parker’s order.
First appearances before a magistrate typically take place within a day of arrest. But in New Orleans, felony defendants then wait 40 days on average to appear before a district court judge for arraignment.
“You have a 40-day period in which someone does not have the right to a non-financial release,” Eville said.
Guidry noted that the criminal court receives more than half of a 3 percent fee paid to the sheriff from bail bond underwriters, meaning that judges, like the underwriters, have a financial stake in the bail industry.
“You have to question who is shooting at them, and what their motivation is,” she said.
She later added, more charitably, that she hopes to work productively with the court in the future. “The criminal court’s budget was cut pretty severely last year, and I advocated against that and advocated that it not be cut again. It would be my hope that we can all work together to make this program the success that it has been nationally.”