Criminal District Court Chief Judge Karen Herman and Judge Robin Pittman take question from reporters following a Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Wednesday. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Judges from the New Orleans Criminal District Court faced questioning from New Orleans City Council members on Wednesday over the lack of clear or cohesive policies, procedures, and oversight surrounding the use of ankle monitors for criminal defendants out on bond. 

The judges were asked to appear before Wednesday’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting following the killing of Portia Pollock outside her 7th Ward home earlier this month. The suspect in the killing had been out on bond from a previous case when the crime occurred, and had been ordered by Judge Angel Harris to wear an ankle monitor as a condition of that bond. But it is unclear whether or not he actually had an active monitor on at the time of the killing. Harris was not present at the meeting on Wednesday.

“We obviously have a system that many of us don’t understand how it works, exactly what’s entailed in it, and how you get to the point of having it individual with the kind of record that the alleged perpetrator in this murder had be released, in essence, on what is the honor system,” Councilman Jay Banks said at the meeting. (The suspect had posted a $100,000 bond before being released.)

The incident, and subsequent questions regarding the use of ankle monitors, come as the city and criminal justice stakeholders are working to implement a new publicly run electronic monitoring system after past attempts were scrapped due to poor administration and disputes over funding and personnel. Chief Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman, along with Judge Robin Pittman, Judge Camille Buras, and Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik appeared before the committee. 

Nathaniel Weaver, from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, was also at the meeting. He said that the city was considering a partnership with District Attorney Jason Williams office to utilize DA’s office investigators to respond to monitoring violations — a suggestion that at least one judge at the meeting took issue with.

While the judges said they couldn’t speak about the specifics of an ongoing case due to judicial ethics rules on Wednesday, they did speak more broadly about the way ankle monitors are sometimes utilized at criminal court. 

The decision to order electronic monitoring as a condition of bond is left up to the discretion of Criminal District Court judges, Chief Judge Karen Herman told the committee. But without a public electronic monitoring program currently in place, and no contract between the court and any private monitoring companies, criminal defendants are responsible for finding bond companies that will issue them an ankle monitor. 

“It is incumbent on the defendant and his or her attorney to find a program to take them on,” Herman said at the meeting. “If they can’t find one, then they can’t post their bond.” 

Various conditions can be placed on someone with an ankle monitor — such as confinement to certain locations, or a curfew — and if those conditions are violated, an agent from the company is supposed to notify the judges and potentially retrieve the defendant. 

But council members expressed concern that with defendants entering into private agreements with monitoring companies, there were no cohesive policies in place around when judges should be notified if a person violates the conditions of their monitoring, what should happen when a person violates their conditions, or oversight over which companies are given contracts to monitor defendants. 

“So we know that there’s nothing that really monitors the monitoring companies,” said Councilwoman Kristin Giselson Palmer. “We don’t know if they’re even charging fair rates to this population. We don’t know how they’re holding themselves accountable. We don’t know if they’re legitimate. We do know they have very close ties with the bonding companies — which I think is a huge problem.”

Herman suggested she agreed, and would prefer a publicly administered program utilizing law enforcement to respond to violations — which she had brought during a previous meeting. 

“My number one issue was having a company that would contract with Criminal District Court, that had a law enforcement component to it, that we could stay in touch with 24/7,” Herman said.  

‘I already see problems’

The city has in fact been working with criminal justice stakeholders on developing a publicly run electronic monitoring program since the issue was discussed at a Criminal Justice Committee meeting back in February. 

Weaver said that utilizing police officers to pick up people who have violated their electronic monitoring conditions would mean that they were pulled from their normal duties, and that the city could “ultimately see a negative impact on public safety.”

He said that the “most viable partnership” they were looking at would be with the District Attorney Jason Williams’ office regarding using Peace Officer Standards and Training-certified DA investigators to pick people up if violations occur. 

But Buras questioned whether or not someone working with the prosecutor’s office would be the right person to pick people up and make probable cause determinations. 

Weaver said that they would need to work with the City Attorney’s Office to “figure out what the implications are if the DA initiates an arrest — what that does for the case.” 

Under state law, investigators with DA’s offices do not have the authority to make arrests.

Weaver said that for now the city was looking primarily at Juvenile Court for now, and that the DA investigators could work in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center — the city’s juvenile jail — which, he said, has the authority to revoke a juvenile’s release itself “as opposed to through a judge’s order.”

That explanation did not seem to satisfy the concerns of some judges or council members.

“Just make sure that you get with the judges on this and make sure you look through any legal implications,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “Just make sure that you double check and triple check that everything is like, legally correct —that it isn’t necessarily police or law enforcement that has to be there. … I just don’t want to start all these conversations and moving down a track if there are going to be problems.”

“I’m only speaking for Judge Buras,” Buras said, “but I already see problems.” 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...