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Risk assessment faces death by budget cuts

19th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

The city council chamber buzzed Tuesday afternoon as audience members filled the room waiting for an opportunity to offer testimony. Jackie Clarkson chaired the meeting, flanked by her colleagues.

The tone in the room became heated, however, when the topic turned to miscellaneous budget items and the pre-trial services program. The program, which was in development for over a year, launched a pilot phase at the end of April. Run by the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit organization which focuses on creative solutions to legal system issues, the pre-trial program assesses arrestees to what type of risk they present to themselves and the community. The judge, district attorney and public defender’s offices receive this assessment to aid in determining whether the person can be released before trial or should remain in custody.

Under the mayor’s proposed budget, the program received $184,000, only about a third of the funding required to be fully operational. Former Crime Commis­sioner James Carter had requested $623,000 from the City for the program. Vera Institute Director, Jon Wool, told the council that the federal money, which has supported the program to date “will be spent out this year or early next year.” He also pointed out that those funds came with the condition that “the city sustain the program after this year.” Wool also noted that the program would not be able to function at the current proposed level. Closing down, he said, would also result in having to return $300,000 to Baptist Community Ministries since the organization contributed to a supervision aspect of the program, which has not launched yet.

Seventeen people had submitted cards requesting a speaking slot. Council Member Clarkson asked those assembled to choose 8 representatives to speak for them. The community voices raised a range of concerns about the program, from its cost to the fact that the Vera Institute is not a locally-based organization.

Pastor Tom Watson of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries said that “money ought to go first to our young people.” He also called the Vera staff “carpetbaggers” and complained that no Request For Proposals (RFP) had been issued to run the program.

Later in the hearing, Council-member Guidry, who heads the criminal justice committee, pointed out that there had been no RFP because the Department of Justice had directly awarded Vera the funds to launch the program. She stressed that “the Vera Institute of Justice came to New Orleans at the express request of the city council to come into New Orleans and analyze our criminal justice system because it was very, very apparent that something was broken.” Guidry also stated that once the program could stand on its own, switching to local leadership would be reasonable.

Kevin Stuart, representing Revive NOLA, told the council members that he feared “skipping” would result from pre-trial release. He also claimed that in Philadelphia, “people were getting off of crimes because the evidence was deteriorating.” Stuart also asserted that “Vera is very expensive. The salaries are sky high.” Stuart referred to a series of articles published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2009, but the articles describe a complex nexus of factors leading to a dysfunctional system, such as witness intimidation, incompetent prosecution, and an inadequate number of judges.

Addressing Stuart’s criticism of the Vera Institute, Guidry told the chamber that “all they [Revive NOLA] have on their web site is anti-VERA information.” She also countered the assertion about expense, saying that the Vera staff “have worked with the city and city council tirelessly, for zillions of hours at very little cost, almost all volunteer.”

In an interview in his office, First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin disputed the prospect that the pre-trial program would release dangerous criminals onto New Orleans’s streets. He stated that the pre-trial services offer “a very valuable service to this community, and it can help us reduce our jail population; it can help us expedite the more minor offenses through the system, and it can also ensure that the more serious offenders stay incarcerated.” Martin also underscored that under the current system, many people sit in jail needlessly simply because they do not have the money to post bail.

One bail bondsman, Matthew Dennis, levied the charge that the pre-trial services program, by reducing the need for commercial bail, would be a “drain.” “We bail bondsmen pay $1.5 million to the city,” Dennis asserted, “bail, costs you zero.”

Prior to serving with the district attorney’s office, Martin worked for the commercial bail industry. He crafted the state’s 1993 bail reform act, legislation sponsored by then Senator and future New Orleans Mayor, Marc Morial. Martin is well-acquainted with the industry because of these experiences. He disputed Dennis’s claim, asserting that there is a segment of the jail population that doesn’t’ have enough money to offer business to the bail bondsmen.

Martin told The Louisiana Weekly that “if you had a friend, who knew a judge who could make a phone call in the middle of the night, without a risk assessment,” you could get out of jail. “Before pre-trial services went in, there were people who knew no lawyer, had no friends and had no money, and they were getting, let’s say a $500 cash bond. Well, they didn’t have $500, so they would sit in jail while they’re case was being reviewed.”

This situation is precisely what befell Lloyd Every III. Every is tall and almost rickety thin with a small tuft of graying hair adorning his chin. A Saints jacket hung on his elongated frame. Every now works as a substance abuse counselor at a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Gentilly. Before, however, Every used drugs, and was arrested for possession on a few occasions. But, he told The Louisiana Weekly, he’d never been arrested for a violent crime.

One evening on Bourbon St., Every got into a tussle that landed him and a buddy in jail. While his friend had the money to post bail, Every did not. Consequently, he sat in the jail for about two months, leaving his employer, a family member, in the lurch. “My car insurance didn’t get paid for two months,” Every told The Louisiana Weekly. “Good thing I was working for family, with family remodeling houses. I woulda lost my job. Unnecessarily lost my job. I couldn’t pay my car note, so it took me a while to get back to doing things the correct way again.”

According to Martin, sitting in jail has repercussions beyond the economic and familial. It also has an impact on the outcome of the case itself. “Probably the most significant factor in determining the outcome of your case, if you’re a criminal defendant, is whether you’re in jail or out. If you’re in jail, the odds of you getting a good outcome go down drastically. If you’re out of jail, the odds of you getting a more favorable outcome go up drastically.”

Martin stressed that as a district attorney, he is committed to punishing criminals, but, he also asserts that “the idea is to make New Orleans a safer city” and determining who should be held in jail and who should be released based on an objective, statistical evaluation “is a step in the right direction.”

This article originally published in the November 19, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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