Criminal defendants stood against a wall in the lobby of an Orleans Parish courtroom on Wednesday as sheriff’s deputies and police officers went down the line removing their electronic monitors.
All told, 41 adult defendants in several sections of Criminal District Court were relieved of their ankle bracelets after Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office announced it was pulling out of the electronic monitoring program it had once jointly operated with the city.
The long-threatened move will force Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council to quickly find someone else to keep defendants awaiting trial under electronic watch.
Mayor’s Office spokeswoman Sarah McLaughlin said that a request for proposals for a private, third-party vendor to run the program was issued earlier this month, and bids are due Feb. 3.
In the meantime, the program — which gives arrested suspects at least temporary freedom, relieves jail overcrowding and alleviates judges’ concerns about putting defendants in a position to commit new crimes — is effectively out of commission.
Judges remanded some of the defendants to jail on Wednesday. In several sections of the courthouse, however, most defendants were allowed to go free without the anklets pending their next court dates, in some cases with additional restrictions such as curfews.
Defendants affected by the decision include those out on bond facing charges of aggravated assault, armed robbery, manslaughter and attempted murder. Others are defendants in drug and other lesser offenses, as well as a few probationers.
The Sheriff’s Office and New Orleans police recommended many of the releases to the judges Wednesday morning, citing the defendants’ records of adhering to the terms of their release and their monitoring conditions.
Gusman’s decision comes after months of back-and-forth with city officials over who would run the program. He warned in November 2014 that he intended to pull out of it in January 2015, then pushed that deadline back to October 2015.
The end of the Sheriff’s Office role in the program came just days after U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a federal court plan for reforms at the Sheriff’s Office, ruled that the sheriff lacked authority to raise pay for deputies on his own.
Gusman has said he needs a higher pay schedule to compete with the Police Department as he tries to hire guards for his recently opened jail, which is still short of staffing targets set by the federal reform agreement.
“The (Sheriff’s Office) is underfunded and understaffed. The (electronic monitoring) program is a strain on … already thin resources,” Gusman spokesman Philip Stelly said in an email. “Simply speaking, OPSO cannot properly hire and staff based on current salaries.”
The program had been run by the Sheriff’s Office with the help of police. Gusman has long complained, however, that the city wasn’t paying the bill.
Criminal Court judges said they were notified of Gusman’s intention last week, and they called in every defendant or probationer on ankle monitors to ensure their bonds or other restrictions were in place before Wednesday.
Shedric Morgan, 30, who faces a weapons charge as well as counts of resisting an officer and cocaine possession, lifted his leg outside Chief Judge Laurie White’s courtroom while police unstrapped his anklet.
A sheriff’s deputy held a plastic bag nearby that contained about 30 electronic monitors.
Morgan’s girlfriend, Danielle Johnson, called the change a relief. She said the monitor has made it harder for Morgan when it comes to finding work and managing the two hours of charging every day.
“It’s really a strain on him,” she said of the anklet and the restrictions it places on him. “It’s really been a struggle. It’s not necessary.”
Some judges lamented the loss of a program they said was working. Despite the city’s request for bids, White and Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik both said the program works best when law enforcement handles it, with arrest powers and standing orders from judges as conditions of the program.
“Those agents have done a fantastic job monitoring” the anklet wearers, White said. “The recidivism rate was like, zero. This was a really successful program. and it was also the Sheriff’s Office and NOPD working together.”
White said she urged Gusman’s office to continue the program while the city hires a new operator, but to no avail.
Judge Arthur Hunter saw seven of his defendants released from their ankle monitors, including a probationer, a defendant awaiting trial for armed robbery and a man accused of attempted aggravated rape.
Hunter called the availability of the monitoring program “a factor” in decisions on whether to release defendants.
In addition to 45 adults, about 15 Juvenile Court defendants will be affected by the Sheriff’s Office decision. Juvenile Court Chief Judge Candice Bates-Anderson did not return a request for comment.
The defendants relieved of their monitors Wednesday included Robert Jones, who recently was released on an ankle bracelet pending a retrial in a 1992 kidnapping and rape case.
Hunter recently set Jones free after 19 years in prison on less than $40,000 bond after a lengthy hearing over his innocence claim. Hunter said he freed Jones of his ankle bracelet Wednesday and sent him on his way pursuant to a recommendation from police and the sheriff’s office.
Charity Nguyen, who awaits trial in the 2013 killing of her husband, also had her monitor taken off. Nguyen, who faces counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and obstruction of justice, remains free on $200,000 bond. Among the conditions of her release is that she is not allowed to walk to the mall.