After months with an electronic monitor strapped to his ankle, Aaron Jones was ready to leave the criminal justice system behind him when he walked into Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Paul Bonin’s courtroom last May.
Jones pleaded guilty to a felony and received his sentence: three years of probation. But there was a catch: Bonin told Jones to pay off the $600 he owed to the private company that operated the monitor before he could have the device removed.
“What if I don’t have the money?” Jones remembers thinking.
Jones said his father, a retiree, eventually scrounged up the cash. But the idea of a judge acting as bill collector did not sit well with him, he said.
That interaction last year was part of a larger pattern in which Bonin steered defendants to a campaign contributor’s ankle-monitor company and threatened them when they did not pay its fees, the nonprofit judicial monitoring group CourtWatch NOLA said in a report issued Wednesday.
Bonin said he sees the monitors as a critical tool in a broader push to reduce the inmate population at the New Orleans jail. In an interview, he acknowledged erring in his comments to Jones, but he offered a simple explanation for why he made referrals to that company: He trusted it to keep track of defendants.
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Bonin said his actions did not cross any ethical lines, but CourtWatch NOLA argues that he ran afoul of judicial canons. Either way, the new report may reopen a debate over the role of ankle monitors in New Orleans and how to pay for them.
Ankle monitors are ordered by judges as part of defendants’ bail, in lieu of keeping people charged in criminal cases locked up in the city jail awaiting trial. Defendants generally must pay a $100 installation fee and monitoring fees of $10 a day or more, according to CourtWatch NOLA.
Over the past decade, amid a broader push by city officials to cut the number of jail inmates, judges at Criminal District Court have increasingly used ankle monitors to keep track of defendants on bail.
But the monitors have come with persistent headaches. Under former Mayor Ray Nagin, the city contracted with Total Sentencing Alternatives Program for the service, only to ditch it in 2010 over concerns that its employees were too slow to report violations, according to WWL-TV.
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The Sheriff’s Office then took over the program, with cops and deputies able to see when defendants strayed from their assigned curfew hours or home confinement and, hypothetically, spring into action.
The program suffered a serious blow to its reputation in 2014, when a teenager with an ankle monitor was accused of killing a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver. The city's inspector general also blasted the Sheriff’s Office for poor supervision and messy record-keeping.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Marlin Gusman was locked in a dispute with Mayor Mitch Landrieu over his office’s budget, and the Sheriff’s Office quit running the program in 2016.
The judges at Criminal District Court were not ready to give up on ankle monitors, however. With no public program to turn to, judges and defendants pivoted to private vendors.
Several judges said the monitors are a useful tool for defendants who probably shouldn’t be in jail, but whom the judges don’t trust to roam the streets freely.
“It’s a service provided, under appropriate circumstances, so that people don’t have to await trial in jail and have their life totally disrupted,” Judge Franz Zibilich said. “I think that’s a good thing.”
CourtWatch NOLA said there were at least 94 cases in 2018 in which judges required defendants to wear ankle monitors — a small fraction of the thousands of cases that passed through the courthouse.
Unlike many other jurisdictions, the city now has no central contract for ankle monitoring of defendants. The decision on which company to use is left up to individual defendants or judges.
That arrangement surprised James Kilgore, a fellow at the California-based Center for Media Justice, which tracks and criticizes the ankle bracelet industry.
“One of the real problems with electronic monitoring is that it’s not regulated,” Kilgore said. “If you have it completely decentralized and individualized like that, it removes all hope of actually having any accountability.”
Two companies called ETOH and A2i operate in New Orleans. CourtWatch NOLA said the Gretna Police Department also offers monitoring.
The CourtWatch report said some judges leave it up to defendants to decide which company to use as a condition of their bail.
But the report zeroed in on Bonin for “steering” defendants to ETOH, whose owners are New Orleans attorneys Leonard Levenson and Christian Helmke.
Both men are prolific donors to a wide variety of candidates, according to state ethics filings. Levenson, who was suspended from the practice of law in federal court for one year as a result of the corruption probe into impeached former U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous, was also once Bonin’s law partner.
The group said that a review of transcripts and interviews with attorneys showed 15 instances in 2018 where Bonin sent defendants to ETOH. Four other defendants were monitored by A2i. While several judges received campaign donations from ETOH executives, the group said it found no evidence that other judges had steered defendants to specific companies.
Bonin sometimes told defendants they had to remain monitored until they paid their fees to ETOH, according to the group.
“When you get financially current, then they can release you,” Bonin told Jones, according to a transcript.
Bonin has received $8,500 in campaign donations from Levenson and Helmke since 2008, including a $1,000 loan during his 2016 campaign for Criminal District Court, CourtWatch NOLA said. While the report doesn’t suggest those donations were against the law, it said that in the future, Bonin should disclose ETOH’s campaign contributions when ordering a defendant to wear a monitor.
For his part, Bonin said there was nothing nefarious about referring defendants to ETOH. He said he only became aware that the company was operating in Orleans Parish via an email from the state office of Probation and Parole, which used the company at the time.
“Whosoever the monitor, you’ve got to trust them,” Bonin said in an interview, adding that while he had a bad experience in one case with the alternative provider, A2i, he has since become comfortable with that company.
A2i said it had not been ordered to provide regular reports to the court in the case that raised Bonin’s ire. The company’s general manager, Jill Dennis, said maintaining its reputation is key to its business.
“We want to make sure that we're accountable and responsible to the court,” she said.
Bonin noted that no one in Jones’ case or any other filed an appeal.
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Levenson said his company has no formal agreement with the judge and denies the suggestion that there is a conflict of interest.
“I can tell you that very, very few people on ankle monitors pay the full amount of those monitoring charges,” Levenson said. “We work with these people to assist them in being able to make payments.”
Since CourtWatch NOLA approached Bonin, he has emailed attorneys for the five defendants in his courtroom using ETOH, telling them that they are free to switch to A2i.
Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said his group has recently proposed a new public program that would replace the private monitoring companies.
Goyeneche said he thinks having a publicly run outfit is especially important at a time when judges are setting lower and lower bail amounts, as part of a city push to slice the jail's population.
Bonin said he would welcome a public alternative provided by the city.
Blake Arcuri, the general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, said the public would have to be prepared to foot the bill.
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“If a public entity runs it, the community has to be ready. It's going to be a big staffing and money investment,” he said. The program cost $400,000 a year the last time it was under the direction of the Sheriff’s Office.
Meanwhile, ankle monitoring as a way to keep track of defendants is increasingly under attack from criminal justice reform advocates. Kilgore, who spent time on an ankle monitor himself, said there are no hard data to prove that they work.
“There’s an assumption that it’s helpful, and this is exactly the same assumption that drove the growth of mass incarceration,” he said.
Jones, the former defendant in Bonin’s courtroom, said being on an ankle monitor was “10 times better” than sitting in jail. But he doesn’t think the cost of the monitors should be born by poor defendants and their families.
“The justice system — they’re the ones that want it on you, so they might as well pay for it,” he said.
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