It’s been three years since the Vera Institute of Justice launched a program aimed at securing the quick release of Orleans Parish inmates who are deemed a low risk to commit new crimes or to skip out on their court dates while awaiting trial.
But even though the numbers suggest the program has succeeded in identifying alleged nonviolent offenders who need not be locked up — with a 6 percent rearrest rate for defendants it assigns the lowest risk level — it has made few friends among the Criminal District Court judges who ultimately set the bond amounts and conditions for pretrial detainees.
Some judges have derided the program as providing far too little bang for the buck.
To some, the inmate risk scores that Vera generates — through a detailed review that looks at criminal, work and family histories, among other factors — threaten the judges’ discretion to set bond amounts as they see fit, while leaving them open to public rebuke should they veer from the formula or release a defendant who then commits a high-profile crime.
Until lately, the court has balked even at letting Vera’s assessments appear in the public court record.
Now, little more than a year after the New Orleans Pre-Trial Services program hit full stride, the court has launched a bid to wrest that work, and its $623,000 in annual city funding, away from Vera and bring it in-house. And the judges have found an ally at the top of the state’s judicial food chain.
In a letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council last week, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson proposed creating a pretrial services program in Orleans Parish to be overseen by the state’s high court.
If the city commits the money Vera is now getting, Johnson wrote, “it is possible the transition of oversight of the pretrial services program, as it exists now, could be completed by early 2015.”
As a carrot, Johnson pledged money to launch a pilot project for long-awaited technology to integrate the computer systems in a courthouse plagued by antiquated and balkanized record systems.
But critics fear that Johnson’s proposal, which so far lacks any detail, might effectively neuter a program that has garnered kudos from Landrieu, in part for its potential to reduce the inmate population at Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s costly jail complex.
Landrieu’s office has cited the pretrial services program as a key tool in reaching the goal of halving the city’s 2010 jail population by 2018.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee and a staunch supporter of the Vera program, was dubious.
“It’s not really a proposal. This looks like more of an expressed interest,” she said of Johnson’s four-page letter, dated Dec. 2.
“I believe that the pretrial services program has to be independent of the local judiciary,” Guidry said. “There are just too many conflicts of interest there.”
Rob Kazik, the local court’s judicial administrator, declined to comment on how a court-run program might work or on whether the court would take over Vera’s program — which was developed with input from the judges, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office and others — or create its own.
Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans office, noted that the goal always has been to hand off control of the program, which was built on national models and was designed to base bail-setting decisions in Orleans Parish on proven risk measures, rather than primarily on the nature of the alleged offense.
“It continues to be our intention to find an independent home for the program,” Wool said, declining to comment on whether the court would be an appropriate landing spot. “The program is not yet mature enough to spin off, but certainly we’re beginning the planning process to find a home.”
This is not the first time the judges at Criminal District Court have tried to dismantle the Vera program.
In January 2013, a quorum of the judges voted to kill it before shifting course and calling on Vera to prove its success. The judges have long considered the city’s funding of the pretrial services program as a direct hit on their shrunken budget.
In September, Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell went so far as to sign an order barring the inclusion of Vera’s reports into any Magistrate Court records, before the court as a whole rescinded his order a week later.
Bail bondsmen have been front and center in hammering the program and the city’s funding of it, claiming potential public safety risks from a model that could hurt them financially by helping set many defendants free on their own recognizance.
Vera claims the program actually is a bargain, saving the city far more than its $623,000 contribution in terms of reduced incarceration costs for inmates who don’t need to be kept in jail.
But while Vera claims success, citing a slide in the pretrial jail population over the course of the program, the numbers also suggest the judges’ suspicion, or indifference, toward the program has limited its effectiveness.
In the first half of this year, just 30 percent of arrestees who scored in the two lowest risk categories in Vera’s assessments actually received low bail figures or were released without putting up any money, according to Vera’s own numbers.
“I feel that the judges have still not taken full advantage of the program. We still have some of the highest rates of pretrial detention in the nation and some of the lowest utilization rates for best practices, such as supervision, third-party signature bonds” and recognizance bonds, Guidry said.
“For the judges to have concerns about using the information (from the pretrial program) is problematic.”
In her letter, however, Johnson argued that a pretrial services program run by the court would benefit from drug court, mental health court, intensive supervision and other existing court programs that could be harnessed to help keep nonviolent offenders on track.
In a statement, Landrieu spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said the mayor “fully supports a robust pretrial program to ensure that the right people are in jail. Too often, we find that low-income, nonviolent offenders sit in jail while they await trial, simply because they are too poor to afford bond.”
Crawford added that “a pretrial program that works” is key to the mayor’s bid to “right size” the jail.
“The program is currently run by the Vera Institute, and it has always been the understanding that once the program is up and running, it will spin off to another organization to administer in the long term,” Crawford added.
“We appreciate the Supreme Court’s letter and look forward to working with them, the City Council and all other stakeholders as we move forward to make pretrial services a strong and essential component of a more effective criminal justice system.”
The issue may come up at a Criminal Justice Committee meeting Wednesday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.