Gusman extends controversial monitoring program 30 days _lowres

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman

Weeks after he vowed to pull the plug on his office’s electronic monitoring of several dozen pre-trial defendants, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has agreed to continue the service for another month as city leaders try to find the program a permanent home.

Amid mounting controversy over the city-funded program, including a high-profile murder blamed on a program participant and a critical report by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, Gusman told city officials late last year that he planned to disconnect the monitoring service at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 3 and return the ankle bracelets to Omnilink, the program’s equipment provider.

The abrupt announcement threw the future of the program into disarray, as city officials examined whether the monitoring could be handed over to the New Orleans Police Department.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, stressed the importance of continuing the monitoring program, regardless of whether the sheriff or the Police Department operates it. The program is an invaluable tool for police, he said, because it can deter people wearing ankle bracelets from committing further crimes. The reason is that it allows investigators to determine whether people wearing ankle bracelets were at or near the scene of a crime.

“These people are still getting out of jail, and if they don’t have a monitor on, they’re just on the honor system,” Goyeneche said. “That doesn’t work out too well all the time.”

However, the sheriff had grown weary of the bad press generated by the $400,000-a-year program, and his top deputies complained publicly about the Sheriff’s Office receiving belated payments from the city to track the ankle bracelets. Gusman also noted a need to allocate as many Sheriff’s Office resources as possible to the new 1,438-bed jail — a facility whose opening has been delayed at least in part because of a shortage in manpower.

Whatever his reasoning, Gusman’s decision to extend the program suggests at least a temporary thawing of his position. It’s unclear whether it also reflects a longer-term willingness to keep the monitoring duties in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office.

“While the city is working out its long-term plans, we’ve agreed to extend the operation by 30 days,” said Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Asked whether the sheriff would be open to continuing the program beyond early February, Stelly said, “As previously stated, the agreement is for a 30-day extension.”

Gusman’s timetable has concerned city leaders, particularly at a time when the NOPD’s own staffing struggles have raised questions about whether the department can — and should — take on new responsibilities.

As of Monday, there were 66 adult defendants and 12 juveniles enrolled in the electronic monitoring program.

Pointing to the public-safety benefits of ankle bracelets, some City Council members have called on the NOPD to assume the monitoring duties, while saying they hope Gusman will extend his agency’s involvement indefinitely to avoid an interruption in service.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has declined to say where the discussions stand.

“Those conversations are ongoing,” police Superintendent Michael Harrison said at a news conference last week, offering no specifics. “Everybody’s cooperating to figure out how (the program) is going to look going forward in 2015.”

The electronic monitoring program has generated a steady stream of controversy in recent months. In September, a local youth violated the terms of his supervision twice in the hours before he and another teen allegedly shot to death Richard Yeager, a Domino’s pizza delivery driver, in Mid-City.

Quatrevaux, the inspector general, last month declared the monitoring program a waste of taxpayer dollars, issuing a critical report that found lax oversight, sloppy record keeping and counterproductive policies under the sheriff’s stewardship. That report drew criticism from some supporters of the sheriff for its reliance on data that predated changes in the monitoring program that were implemented after a National Institute of Justice review in November 2012.

In a telephone interview Monday, Councilman Jason Williams said the NOPD has the capacity to take on the monitoring and that “there are very clear priorities now” about the importance of continuing the program.

“As of right now, the primary goal is to get the NOPD to execute this particular service,” Williams said, adding that he hopes the department can take it over within 30 days. “This program is important to this community. It’s important to the health of this community, so I would not want — and I don’t think anyone else on the council would want — to have any time period where it was not in service.”

Another option at the city’s disposal is to hire a third-party vendor to administer the program, a route taken under the administration of former Mayor Ray Nagin.

Before awarding the contract to the Sheriff’s Office in late 2010, the city had contracted with Total Sentencing Alternatives Program, a firm that drew criticism for being too slow to report supervision violations.

Matthew Dennis, a local bail bondsman who owns a2inola, which stands for Alternative to Incarceration, said the city has not yet solicited any bids for the monitoring program. Dennis said his company, which is preparing to offer GPS monitoring to Criminal District Court judges for cases involving “non-indigent” defendants, would be interested in bidding on the city contract.

“They’re still bouncing back and forth with the sheriff,” Dennis said of the city.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.