Criminal Justice

Groups studying jail size may continue work past deadline

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Despite having a Monday deadline, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group may well extend its efforts, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said today at the first of the two final scheduled meetings.

“I think we’re going to have a few more meetings before we get to a final recommendation based on what I’m seeing,” Kopplin said as he closed this afternoon’s meeting.

The group last week held two public meetings, and received a 10-year jail population projection report by report by James Austin, a criminal-justice consultant working with the National Institute of Justice.

Kopplin opened the meeting by talking about the necessary tension between making “thoughtful, data-driven decisions” and moving with appropriate speed “so that the city can move forward.”

“We don’t want to be stuck in the paralysis of analysis,” Kopplin said. “But we’re not going to impose artificial deadlines until this group resolves questions that we may have.”

The group is now looking to make recommendations to Landrieu based on a number of possible policy changes, including reducing the number of state prisoners in the jail, pre-trial diversions, and reducing the number of people arrested on warrants.

The group also drilled into other possible policy changes today.

• Parole and probation violations

First, the group focused on the number of parole and probation violators who are held in the jail, with judges on the working group themselves blaming jail size for the decisions made by their peers.

Eleven percent of the jail population was in jail for a parole or probation violation in October 2010, according to Austin’s report. The average length of stay for a parole violation is 128.1 days, and the average length of stay for probation violations is 89.3 days, councilwoman Susan Guidry said.

Former Criminal District Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson, who retired in 2008, said the group should focus on changing the behavior of judges, who regularly put parole violators in jail to teach them a lesson.

“I’m just going to use Calvin as an example,” Johnson said, referring to himself. “Calvin put people in jail because I knew that the jail had lots of space, and I would use that jail as a way of changing behavior, regardless of the fact that the city was paying for it. I did not take that into consideration, or how that changes the size of the jail.

“I knew we had a lot of beds, and I used it from that perspective,” Johnson said. “And that is a perspective that still exists at Tulane and Broad.”

Guidry agreed.

“We’re learning that it’s human nature. If you have a jail size, it is going to affect the policy because if you have the jail size then the judges are going to say, ‘Let’s throw them in jail to teach them a lesson,’ ” Guidry said.

Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said that approach is wrongheaded.

“You don’t go to jail because you made some judge mad,” he said. “We haven’t looked at ourselves in terms of process and procedure that puts people in jail.”

Juvenile Judge Ernestine Gray also chimed in.

“The judge said don’t smoke weed.They come back and they fail a drug test,” Gray said. “Instead of revoking the probation, he decides to send the person to jail for thirty days, and more than half the judges are possibly doing that.

“How do you change the judges’ behavior?” Gray asked. “Have less beds.”

Michael Cowan listens to retired Criminal District Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson.

Judicial efficiency

Councilwoman Stacy Head also said some judges are more efficient than others. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed, saying slow progress to trial is a major factor in jail size.

“We have standards left, right and center. It’s just a matter of going out and doing it, executing the game plan,” Cannizzaro said.

The group will ask Austin to model an improvement in judicial efficiency.

Bond schedules

Bunton also asked if a fixed bond schedule — setting certain bonds for certain charges, instead of giving judges discretion — might reduce the jail size. Cannizzaro said there’s likely to be resistance to that from the judges.

“The only thing that’s going to drive this is the number of beds,” Johnson said. “With respect to the people at this table, you’re not going to change 12 judges’ behavior by some decision that takes place at this table.”

Kopplin will ask Austin if it’s possible to model the impact of a bond schedule on the number of jail beds.

• State and municipal charges

Kopplin will also ask Austin to look at the effect of charging inmates who are accused of both state and municipal charges at the same time, instead of one after the other.

• Statistical concerns

Cannizzaro and Bunton both raised concerns about the speed of the statistical report’s production, in six weeks as opposed to six months.

The Vera Institute of Justice also sent the group a report this morning, criticizing Austin’s statistical estimates for “underestimating the system’s capacity to improve.”

Kopplin defended the report.

“He [Austin] put his name and his firm’s name on this report,” Kopplin said. “But he never said, ‘I don’t stand behind this report.’ I want to make very clear to the audience I don’t think Dr. Austin is backing away from the validity of his data because of that.”

• Other issues

The group did not address racial disparities in length of stay this afternoon.

“The question is, is that a study that can be done, under what timetable, what is the likely impact of that issue?” Kopplin said, before moving on.

Issues like a state-sponsored re-entry system, mental health, substance abuse, and the number of state inmates who are held at the jail will be discussed at the second scheduled meeting of the group this week on the eighth floor of City Hall, between 1 and 4 p.m. on Friday.

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