By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

The City Council held the first of three budget hearings on public safety today, with Councilwoman Susan Guidry leading a charge for more openness and efficiency in the system.

“We’re looking for a lean, mean, criminal-justice machine, one that doesn’t have a lot of redundancies,” said Guidry, chairwoman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Today’s session focused on Criminal District Court, the District Attorney’s Office, Juvenile Court, the Coroner’s Office, and the Public Defender’s Office.

Here are the highlights:

Guidry, Palmer question chief judge over money sources

Guidry and Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer asked Criminal District Court Chief Judge Julian Parker for a full accounting of all fines and fees assessed by his court.

The requests came after Guidry peppered  Parker with questions about  jury fees and fees for the public defender’s office this morning.

Parker spars with Guidry at a council budget hearing this morning.

Parker will get $360,000 for jury meals in this year’s budget, increased from $189,000 in 2010, but Guidry suggested that Parker is supposed to pay for them if he can.

Under state law, the city is only obligated to pay jury fees once the court has depleted its own “special account.” Parker said he has never established such an account.

Nevertheless, the state Legislative Auditor’s report for 2009 shows that Parker has a $3.25 million excess “fund balance,” and Guidry asked what that was for.

Parker told Guidry that the “fund balance” included a “renaissance fund,” a grant designed to refurbish the interior of the courthouse.

“There are murals and artwork on the second floor in the grand hall that even before Katrina were just in deplorable condition,” Parker said. “And we have sections of the building where the paint is peeling off the wall…I mean, it’s hard for us to keep that old building functioning.”

Parker’s comments drew a shake of the head from Parker’s predecessor, retired Judge Calvin Johnson, who was seated in the council chamber. The Lens reported in September that Criminal District Court has sat on a separate $7.3 million pot of bond money for courthouse repairs since 2000.

Guidry asked Parker for a breakdown of what is included in the $3.25 million fund, and how it has changed over the past five years.

Parker also said that his court is not always charging $35 of people found guilty. The money is supposed to go to the Public Defender’s Office.

That  office got only $49,000 from Parker’s court between July 2009 and June 2010, while Guidry said that given the number of cases it had tried, she would expect a figure closer to $250,000.

Parker said public defenders themselves ask his judges not to assess the fees, and that he has honored those requests. Parker referred to published comments by Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton about a recent report published by the ACLU.

“There’ve been several news articles where Mr. Bunton has endorsed this proposition that we’re running a debtor’s prison, and we shouldn’t enforce these fines,” Parker said.

Parker said Bunton’s office had been requesting a lot more transcripts of trials over the past 12 months, and said he had been diverting the fines and fees for the public defenders’ office to pay the salaries of the court reporters for those transcripts.

Guidry said this should not be complicated.

“We simply want the fees that can be collected to pay for public defenders to be collected,” Guidry said. “I think we’re going to have to have a discussion about the idea of what happens when a defendant can’t pay the fees, and if a defendant is given community service, how we do all that, and what happens regarding the fees.”

The mayor’s office is looking into the public defenders’ fees, said Jerry Sneed, the mayor’s director of public safety.

Public defender’s office will have to stop taking cases in April 2011 without more money

The city has given money to the public defender’s office only once, in 2009, and it’s not scheduled to give any money this year.

“This is not a fat organization when you look at what the other agencies have,” said Bunton. “The system, in its current configuration, is just sort of out of balance.”

Bunton said it’s sound policy to “maintain a vibrant and working criminal justice system so we have some certainty in how we move cases through the system.”

Bunton said the city is funding the District Attorney’s office far higher than is required by state statute. His office has 60 attorneys, with a caseload of 30,000 cases last year. It needs about an extra $1.85 million to keep going through next year, Bunton said. Public defenders start at $42,000 a year; Assistant District Attorneys start on $45,000 a year.

The state is increasing the funding it gives Bunton’s office to keep it afloat, said Jean Faria, chief state public defender.

Faria, Bunton and Sneed

“There are no deckchairs to rearrange, there’s no band playing in the background to soften what’s happening to you, and there are no lifeboats,” Louisiana Public Defender Board member Luceia LeDoux told council.

Council pushed back, with Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson saying it’s the state’s responsibility to finance the public defender’s office. Clarkson said the council “stepped up” and gave some money last year, but that it doesn’t have as much money this year.

“You’re preaching to the choir, but you’re preaching to a very poor choir, who also has no deckchairs on their Titanic,” Clarkson said.

Guidry said that the city may not be required to fund the Public Defender’s Office, but that she feels an obligation to keep the office funded.

“It’s painfully apparent here that we can’t have a properly functioning criminal judicial system with almost one half of that system being totally under-funded, and I think we need to do something as quickly as possible,” Guidry said.

Sneed said he hoped the $35 criminal-court fees could be better recouped to pay for the Public Defender’s Office, but Gisleson Palmer and Guidry indicated they didn’t think the fee was enough, and that the city should probably set aside some money in this year’s budget.

Sheriff’s courthouse security threat still outstanding

Today is Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s deadline to remove courthouse security unless a deal is reached with the city to give him more money. Gusman’s spokesman is yet to return an enquiry asking whether he has extended the deadline, or backed down from the threat.

Sneed said the city is still negotiating with Parker’s office and Gusman over courthouse security.

“The judges, and the sheriff and I are all tied together in figuring out how we’re going to get through to the end of this year,” Sneed told the council.

The Mayor’s Office and Criminal District Court did not respond to an enquiry about the ongoing dispute, either.

The budget for Gusman’s office is now scheduled for discussion by council on Tuesday.

No need for District Attorney to “grovel”

“Every time we’ve been here in the past we’ve had to do some groveling and some lobbying behind the scenes,” District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said.

Cannizzaro (left) with Sneed.

Cannizzaro’s budget request is increased this year from $5.8 million to $6.1 million, and “the long and short of it is, we’re satisfied with that,” Cannizzaro said.

The extra money will be used to finance the four domestic-violence counselors and four diversion counselors in Cannizzaro’s office.

Cannizzaro said his office still suffers from low salaries for assistant district attorneys — they frequently get hired by other parishes or into private practice, and he can’t develop his staff as he would like because he can’t offer them “the salaries that they deserve.”

New Orleans still paying to jail inmates from other parishes

New Orleans is paying Sheriff Gusman a daily rate to keep inmates in his jail picked up on warrants issued in other parishes, simply because the other parishes are declining to come to New Orleans to pick those inmates up.

“That’s insane,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said, drawing the support of Councilman Jon Johnson.

“If they are not coming to pick up a person that we’ve arrested and taken to jail, I don’t know why on earth we’d arrest them and take them to jail,” Johnson said.

Council likely to re-fund Tulane Tower Learning Center

The council hinted very strongly that it is likely to push for a re-funding of the Tulane Tower Learning Center, a $650,000 project that focuses on getting high-school diplomas for people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Twenty people had signed up to testify in favor of the center, including several people who had benefited from its services.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu cut the center out of his proposed budget.

“I’m hearing that you’re going to re-fund it,” said former Chief Judge of Criminal District Court, Calvin Johnson, addressing council. “So I’m going to thank you.”

Coroner needs another psychiatrist

Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard asked for $30,000 for another part-time psychiatrist, to cover more hours.

“One of our psychiatrists has mental patients come to his house at 3 o’clock in the morning so that he can examine them,” Frank Minyard said, because there’s nobody in the coroner’s office to provide psychiatric assessments at that time.

Councilwoman Head gasped.

“I think that another psychiatrist wouldn’t solve this problem, but it would diminish the threat,” Minyard said. “People with psychiatric problems are the biggest medical problem in this city.”

Minyard also said that the lack of basic medical care in New Orleans is killing more people than it used to, and that he is  investigating an increasing number of natural deaths as a result.

“We can’t wait for the VA or for LSU,” Minyard said, referring to the new hospitals being built by the Veterans’ Association and Louisiana State University in Mid City.

Council will discuss the Police Department, homeland security and criminal justice coordination on Monday with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office budget now scheduled for discussion on Tuesday.