Criminal Justice

Squabble over pre-trial program erupts as hearings plow forward


Discussion over Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2013 budget proceeded in routine fashion for much of Tuesday, with New Orleans City Council members questioning the mayor’s senior aides on ways to squeeze small savings from various programs.

Things heated up in the afternoon, however, when the mayor’s office presented its plan to spend $184,000 on a new program that releases some alleged criminals before they go on trial.

The so-called pre-trial services program was created in April with funding from the federal Department of Justice and is run by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based non-profit, with about $200,000 in city funds this year.

Two executives from Vera’s New Orleans office branded the program a success, saying it kept accused non-risk offenders out of the city’s overcrowded prison until they go to trial. That saves the city money, they said.

“The program is off to an extraordinarily good start,” Jon Wool, the institute’s New Orleans director, told the seven council members.

“We’re decreasing the jail population while identifying those at high risk (of fleeing if freed before trial),” said Elizabeth Simpson, Vera’s project director.

Vera asked for more money from the City Council than the $184,000 proposed by the mayor’s office for 2013. The program needs $623,000 for the year, Wool said.

Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said Landrieu supports Vera’s work but believes that the Department of Justice or a local non-profit such as Baptist Community Ministries could fill the funding gap.

Positive comments about the program were harshly countered by denunciations from members of the public:  a political consultant who said he was representing a citizens group, two ministers who said Vera is protecting criminals, and a bail bondsman who said Vera is trying to put him out of business.

Kevin Stuart, who later acknowledged in an interview that he is a political consultant, told council members that the city’s money is going to high-salaried Vera executives who earn more than New Orleans judges and Mayor Landrieu.

“Our city employees could be paid to do the same job,” said Stuart, prompting several supporters in the crowd to burst into applause.

After his talk, Stuart showed a reporter Vera’s tax return, which is public. It listed Wool’s salary as $138,000 in 2009, before the New Orleans program began. Stuart was wearing a T-shirt with the name of what he said was a citizens group: ReviveNola.

Interviewed after his public comments, Stuart said neither he nor his political consulting firm – Teddlie Stuart Media Partners, which was founded by the late Ray Teddlie, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s long-time political strategist—received payment to organize against Vera.

“I have my own political views,” Stuart said.

He said that ReviveNola exists “largely on the web” and “takes an interest in how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Stuart said the group was created about a year ago, but he could not identify who founded it or who serves as its president.

“I don’t know that it’s a top-down organization,” Stuart said, adding that he hasn’t known the group to have “a physical meeting. People are busy these days.”

Stuart was followed at the microphone by the Rev. Tom Watson, the senior pastor at Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, who complained that Vera got its role screening accused criminals for pre-trial release without competitive bidding.

“That’s unfair and unjust,” Watson said. “I call them carpetbaggers. We have a lot of people who could go to the jails (and screen the defendants) for a lot less.”

A second pastor, the Rev. Joseph Merrill, of New Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, said it was “nonsense” to have “folks from New York come to try to solve our problem.”

Merrill was followed by bail bondsman Matt Dennis, owner of, who said the Vera program “is turning the offender into a victim.” He added, “They’re trying to drive us out of business.”

The pre-trial program represents a financial threat to the bondsmen because the defendants get released without having to post bond.

The back-and-forth comments prompted a response from only one City Council member, Susan Guidry.

Guidry, who chairs the council’s criminal justice committee, said Vera had come to New Orleans in 2007 at the council’s request and was involved in discussions for two years before this year’s program began. She said the Justice Department chose Vera, which is why the program had not been put to through competitive bidding process. “It would be a very big mistake for us to pull the people who have been with the program for two years,” Guidry said. “It’s been a success.”

The Rev. Antoine Barriere, senior pastor at Household of Faith Family Worship Church International, had earlier endorsed Vera’s work before the council, saying the project “was going in the right direction.”

Afterward, in an interview, Barriere said the opposition to Vera surprised him since the critics had just surfaced.

“Now they come in and divide everyone,” Barriere said. “Somebody is connected to somebody who is getting bail bond money.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the fifth day the council has devoted to parsing Landrieu’s $491.4 million general-fund operating budget, a process akin at times to watching paint dry. Throughout, Landrieu officials acknowledged council members’ complaints about proposed budget cuts but said the cuts are necessary to maintain spending on programs aimed at keeping citizens safe from crime.

“Council member,” city budget director Cary Grant told Guidry at one point, “our belt is really tight. We’ve had belt tightening all over the place.”

Kopplin said his budget as the city’s chief administrative officer would drop from $56.4 million in 2012 to a proposed $47.8 million. A loss of $7.3 million in federal grants accounts for most of the cut.

Kopplin said the city planned to buy 100 new police vehicles in 2013 with a one-time FEMA grant of $5 million. (City spokesman Ryan Berni said in an email after the hearing that the police department currently has 1,084 vehicles and wants to retire one-sixth or one-fifth of them per year.)

Asked whether the new vehicles might be fuel efficient, Kopplin said, “We have possibly the lowest fuel efficiency of any fleet imaginable.” He blamed the low gas mileage on older cars and New Orleans’ bumpy streets, which he said require heavy vehicles. (Asked by email whether gas mileage might improve, Berni said that the make and model of the new cars has yet to be determined.)

Kopplin also said, in response to questions, that the city expects to become more energy efficient by buying new LED lights for burned out streetlights. He said a portion of the money would come from a proposed $10 million increase in the franchise fee paid by Entergy – a cost that Entergy passes on to consumers.

Meanwhile, Allen Square Jr., the city’s chief information officer, admitted that the city’s computer system often works poorly. “We need to do better,” he said.

Michelle Thomas, another deputy mayor, noted that an outside consulting firm has recommended that the city require employees to pay 75 percent of health care premiums and dependents to pay 60 percent.

Berni said employees will pay 68 percent of the cost in 2013. The city has 6,372 employees and retirees enrolled in its health plan (the plan includes the sheriff’s and the district attorney’s offices) and another 6,195 dependents, he said.

Finally, Iftikhar Ahmad, aviation director at Louis Armstrong International Airport, said the facility has cut costs and improved its finances while Landrieu has been mayor. Ahmad said, for example, that costs per enplaned passenger were projected to be $16.31 but have been reduced to $8.49 in 2012.

“The airport is no longer being run like a political patronage operation,” Guidry said in complimenting Ahmad.

“The airport is reducing debt and continuing to progress,” added Council Member Diana Bajoie.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many days the City Council has held budget hearings.

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About Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism. Prior to that, he spent 13 years as a reporter for the Miami Herald, where he was twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams while covering state government, the city of Miami and national politics. He also was a foreign correspondent based in South America. Before the Herald, he covered politics for seven years at The Times-Picayune. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke (1994) and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards (2001). He can be reached at (504) 810-6222.

  • What people need to understand about this issue and how it relates to the bail bond industry is not that it takes away its business. The important point is that you already have a private industry that performs the task of releasing defendants pretrial extremely well. This private industry (commercial bail bonding) does not cost the city of New Orleans a single dime. Rather the industry generates significant revenue to the city through taxes, court costs and fees. The VERA institute in its short life has already shown signs of deterioration of it success, moving from a FTA of 7% to 15% in about 6 months. Aren’t pilot programs supposed to show improvement at the beginning. New Orleans city council should not commit any additional programs to fund an entity that is under performing at the expense of a private industry that does a better job and at the expense of public safety. Releasing people who have been accused of a crime with no supervision or accountability is ridiculous. The council needs to ask the VERA Institute one simple question. When someone fails to appear, who goes after them and gets them back to court? The Answer: NOBODY. Ask that same question to a bail agent who has his own money on the line. That is why private commercial bail outperforms pretrial programs every time and it is why with commercial bail our communities are safer, because criminals are held accountable and get their day in court.

  • Kaye Harris

    Almost every major city in this country, as well as the Federal Government, has Pretrial Programs. In fact, most of the people sitting in local jails have not been convicted of a crime. Instead, they’re awaiting trial and can’t afford bail.

    According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics,60% of jail inmates are awaiting disposition of their cases, not serving time for a conviction. Three-fourths of these people are accused of property, drug or other nonviolent offenses. Although many are not considered a danger to the public or a flight risk, locking them up contributes substantially to the estimated $9 billion local governments spend every year on jails.

    There’s a high cost to defendants, too. The time they spend in jail can cost them their jobs, prevent them from supporting their families and keep them from dealing with matters that might help their case.

    Seems to me, defendants out on bail who have a job are connected with their families and aren’t abusing drugs or alcohol are more likely to show up in court.

    Furthermore, defendants are not just arbitrarily released from jail if there is a Pretrial Supervision program in place. First, an evidenced-based assessment is conducted which determines factors such as, history of violence, number of times a person failed to appear in court, employment status, living arrangements, drug abuse history, etc. According to these findings, defendants are rated low to high risk for re-offending and/or being a “menace to society.” The information collected from the assessment is presented to a judge who then determines if the person is even eligible for release on their own recognizance.

    If there are pretrial services officers who require defendants to adhere to specific reporting schedules; which, from my understanding may include, telephone and/or personal contact with the assigned pretrial services officer. The officer would be much more capable of monitoring a defendant’s compliance with the conditions of release than a bail bondsman would be. Home visits would be conducted, defendants could be placed in counseling or rehab as needed and additional instructions could be given to a defendant, based on the conditions of release ordered by a Judge.

    Bail is the basic right for most defendants to be released prior to trial. Conditions for bail are set by a judge to reasonably ensure public safety and the person’s return to court. They can include posting the full bail amount, using property as collateral or signing a written agreement to appear, referred to as release on your own recognizance.

    In cities with a pretrial services program, defendants are subject to supervision while they await trial or disposition of their cases.

    We need to do a better job of distinguishing people who are suitable for release. We don’t want people sitting in jails only because they cannot afford their fines.

    Our present attitudes toward bail are not only cruel, but really illogical.

    What has been demonstrated time and again is that usually only one factor determines whether a defendant stays in jail before he/she goes to trial.

    That factor is not guilt or innocence.

    It is not the nature of the crime.

    It is not the character of the defendant.

    That factor is, simply, money.

    How much money does the defendant have?

    Or, as apparent in New Orleans, how much can the defendant afford to pay a bail bondsman?

  • I. M.

    Well stated, Kaye Harris… well stated indeed!!