Pretrial program gets at least a temporary stay of execution

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OPCC

The court house at Tulane and Broad is overloaded with cases involving multiple defendants.

Orleans Parish Criminal Court. Photo by OPCC

Rumors that the city’s pretrial assessment program met its demise Friday at the hands of Criminal Court judges turn out to be exaggerated.

In fact, the program, run by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, is up and running at the Orleans Parish jail at least through the end of the month and perhaps well beyond that.

The rumor mill cranked into high gear late last week after a New Orleans-based bondsman sent an email to Dennis Bartlett, president of the American Bail Coalition in Fairfax, Va.

The email, sent to Bartlett at around 6:30 p.m. Friday by local bondsman Blair Boutte, claimed that “Vera Institute has been terminated by the Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judges effective immediately.”

Bartlett forwarded the email to about twenty reporters who have been following the pretrial-services program. Nola.com published a story on Monday that claimed the judges had met to spike the program.

Vera’s New Orleans director, Jon Wool, said on Monday that he hadn’t heard anything of the judges’ meeting until after The Lens contacted him for comment about it.

He wondered why a bail bondsman who opposes the Vera program would have access to information coming out of a closed meeting of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges late Friday.

It was also news to the criminal court, which now says the judges gathered, not to nix Vera, but  to ask the institute to provide data that would justify Vera’s planned expansion of its New Orleans program.

In conversations Tuesday with The Lens, judicial administrator Robert Kazik confirmed that the judges met to discuss their need for additional data to justify a planned expansion of Vera’s program, not to end it.

“We’re in dialogue with the folks from Vera, Jon Wool and Lisa Simpson,” he said. “We’re looking for some data, and the court is requesting to review some of the data to see what kind of services we are getting,” said Kazik.

That news of the judges’ meeting was leaked appeared to catch Chief Judge Camille Buras off guard. Buras has spoken favorably about Vera’s work at Orleans Parish jail. Kazik and Wool said she put the judges’ directive that Vera produce performance data on hold for a couple of weeks.

“We’re still in discussions,” said Wool, “but the court is telling us that they are suspending their directive until they meet en banc on Jan. 31st.”

Boutte declined to comment on who might have provided him with the information—now alleged to be incorrect—that the judges’ directive sent Vera packing.

“We’re kind of curious too,” said Kazik. “We would have liked to have been the ones to talk” to the Vera Institute, he added.

Kazik stressed that the judges didn’t meet to end the program. “We’re not saying it’s not successful,” he said, “but we are just trying to measure the performance of the program that is in place.”

Bail bondsmen oppose the Vera program, which, they say, cuts into their bottom line at a possible cost to public safety. Other critics have said the same services could be provided at lower cost by city workers.

The Vera program was seeded in 2011  with a $423,000 grant from the Department of Justice and a $200,000 kick-in from the city. The program launched at the Orleans Parish jail last April. With the seed money spent, this year Vera came to the city seeking $600,000. Former Crime Commissioner James Carter made a case for an expanded Vera program back in August and said the city should pony up $623,000.

Carter had returned to his private law practice by the time the cash-poor budgeteers at City Hall initially slashed Vera’s appropriation to $184,000 for fiscal 2013.

The City Council demanded that the city fund it fully for 2013, and, after a wild afternoon of anti-Vera testimony at City Hall in November, Vera’s appropriation was eventually raised to $484,000. “We’re working with the city to close the gap between Carter’s number and what they came up with,” Wool said.

“It was the Council’s determination that the benefits that pretrial services provides, both in terms of cost savings to the City and increased efficiency within the criminal justice system, are well worth our investment in the program,” said a statement from Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the driving force behind embedding the Vera program at the parish prison’s Intake and Processing Center.

Guidry went on to claim that “we have already saved $863,000 in prisoner housing costs since pretrial services began operating last spring, and we anticipate that we will see significantly greater savings as the program expands.”

Guidry said she’s not worried about Vera’s future prospects.

“Discussions among the parties are ongoing, and I trust that the program will continue to operate as envisioned,” she said in a statement.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated when Kazik spoke with The Lens.

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