Arrested development: Pretrial services under assault in New Orleans

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Vera Institute's pretrial services program spares low-risk offenders — and taxpayers — the burden of unnecessary incarceration.

Vera Institute's pretrial services program spares low-risk offenders — and taxpayers — the burden of unnecessary and inappropriate incarceration.

The New Orleans Pretrial Services program is grounded in the principle that people should only be detained in jail pending adjudication when they pose a significant risk to public safety or risk of flight. The pretrial program is partially funded by the city and operated under contract by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

For the past two years, the city has been collaborating with other elements of local government as well as community and civic organizations, to operate the pretrial program as a demonstration project, with additional funding from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. The purpose of the demonstration project is to integrate best practices into the local criminal justice system, with the goal of yielding greater public safety and fairness.

On Oct. 18 the New Orleans City Council Budget and Criminal Justice committees heard presentations from Lori Eville of the National Institute of Corrections and Jon Wool of the Vera Institute of Justice.  Eville reviewed results of her organization’s recent examination of the pretrial services program. Unfortunately, the careful research and forward-thinking discussion of the findings was drowned out by others in attendance who support and benefit from the status quo.  Consequently, some important points were lost which we want to reiterate here.

First, the City of New Orleans puts many more people in jail than is necessary — more than it can afford and many who pose absolutely no danger to public safety.  The status quo works against people who can’t afford bail. Without bail money or a bond, these folks sit needlessly in a jail for weeks waiting for a dismissal or to plead guilty to a minor charge.  The cost to the public for these practices is staggering, but the damage to real people is tragic.

This is a documented waste of taxpayer money which will no doubt cost even more as the system meets the conditions of a federal consent decree intended to clean it up. On the other hand, the pretrial program funded by the city and operated by the Vera Institute is very cost-effective, and it is much more humane.

Second, the Orleans Parish offices of the District Attorney and Public Defender have worked for over two years to get the pretrial program up and running. They testified before the City Council about pretrial screening’s value in improving their decisions on the front end. This testimony should not be ignored by our citizenry. Eville also made the point that there are constitutional questions involved in continuing to stick to the status quo — issues which may draw even more attention from the U.S. Department of Justice and ultimately cost us all more money to repair.

Additional budget hearings since Oct. 18 have raised new alarms that the pretrial program is in danger of having its funding reduced or eliminated.  Judges from Traffic, Municipal and Criminal courts have appeared before the City Council asking to shift the budget for the pretrial program to support their operations.  It has even been suggested that the budgets of the New Orleans Police Department and the Office of the Public Defender be reduced in addition to the Pretrial Services.  The message from those who would gouge funding for the program could not be clearer: “We like things the way they are.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council should stand firm on their budget recommendations regarding pretrial services.  It is a cost-effective and humane program which will serve the City well for many years.

Change is hard, but real change is essential if the safety of the public and the public purse are to be respected. When a system is as challenged as the criminal justice system in New Orleans, leaders are needed with the courage to question the status quo.  We need leaders like the mayor and members of the City Council who will break away from the “way we have always done things,” in favor of approaches that work and save money.  These decisions affect the lives of many people and they are essential to forward progress.

As citizens, we should all be carefully watching the leaders of our criminal justice system in this debate over pretrial services, and we should ask ourselves as voters if we want to be part of a dysfunctional status quo when the elections roll around in 2014.

Luceia LeDoux is vice president of Baptist Community Ministries in charge of public safety grants.

Michael Cowan, is executive director of Common Good and a professor at Loyola University.

Pres Kabacoff is a real estate developer and urban planner.   

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