St. Tammany criminal justice system target of study following Walter Reed indictment _lowres

Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche speaks at a May 2015 news conference announcing a new study into the St. Tammany Parish justice system.

Advocate staff photo by FAIMON ROBERTS

The justice system in St. Tammany Parish — already under intense scrutiny by the media and federal law enforcement — is about to draw another set of eyes.

This time, it will be the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans nonprofit watchdog group, that will be opening the books and examining how justice is being administered on the north side of the lake.

The MCC announced Wednesday that it will prepare two reports — one on police and prosecutors and the other on the judiciary.

Funding is coming from the Northshore Business Council, a pro-business advocacy group. The study will cost $100,000, according to MCC President Rafael Goyeneche, who is hoping to continue doing regular checkups in future years.

The announcement came just two days after former five-term north shore District Attorney Walter Reed pleaded not guilty to an 18-count federal indictment. But Goyeneche insisted that the study is not directly related to recent public corruption cases.

“The fact that there are some well-known investigations had no effect” on plans for the study, he said, adding that the goal is only to inform St. Tammany residents about the health of their justice system. The MCC’s reports will be released publicly.

Goyeneche was joined at the Wednesday news conference by a host of officials, including District Attorney Warren Montgomery, Sheriff Jack Strain, Parish President Pat Brister, Clerk of Court Malise Prieto, 22nd Judicial District Chief Judge Allison Penzato, District Public Defender John Lindner and others.

Goyeneche praised local officials for embracing the added layer of oversight. The level of “buy-in” to the study is something he has not seen in other jurisdictions, he said.

Montgomery said he is excited about the potential to make his office “more just and more fair.” Strain and Penzato said they also welcome the opportunity to improve the local justice system.

Goyeneche said his group will use an array of widely accepted metrics in its assessment. In the case of the police and prosecutors, the MCC will track all arrests in the parish and follow felony cases through to their disposition.

While the conviction rate is often cited by prosecutors, the MCC plans to examine how many cases are plea-bargained, how many charges are not prosecuted, how many are reduced to misdemeanors and other outcomes, Goyeneche said.

When it comes to the judiciary, metrics such as docket size and the average age of docket items will come under scrutiny, he said.

Because the 22nd Judicial District also includes Washington Parish, some aspects of that parish’s legal system will be included in the report, he said.

Goyeneche added that he hopes this study — due in the spring or summer of 2016 — would be the first of annual reviews of the parish’s legal system.

“Many of these entities may be doing a good job,” he said. “There’s always the potential to do a better job.”

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.