As a group, the 13 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have never embraced a "pre-trial services" program that the Vera Institute of Justice launched in 2012 to score felony arrestees by risk level and flag those deemed safe to go free on low or no bail.
Vera's scoring system — based on a review of criminal, work and family histories — went unheeded by some of the judges. Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell refused even to accept the risk assessments into the court record.
The judges voted in 2013 to pull the plug on the program. They later backed off but then lobbied for years to wrest it from Vera, along with some $600,000 a year in city funding.
They've finally succeeded.
The court's judicial administrator, Rob Kazik, and Vera's New Orleans director, Jon Wool, this week confirmed an agreement reached with the Landrieu administration to turn over the program to the court, with a target date of March 1.
Just what the court will do with the program it tried to torpedo remains uncertain.
Kazik and Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who is leading the transfer effort along with Cantrell, said Thursday they are working on the details of a transition that may include hiring Vera employees and using its risk assessment tool in the short term.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has agreed to oversee the program and its city funding in a compromise meant to ease concerns among city officials about the judges' intentions.
The court will be required to report data on the program to the Supreme Court, although the specifics are still being ironed out, Flemings-Davillier said.
Under its agreement with the city, the judge said, the court will start using a risk assessment tool, developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, that has been adopted nationally in a few dozen cities and states.
Part of the goal, she said, is to eliminate racial disparities in bail-setting by the judges.
Flemings-Davillier said the program also will include monitoring of released inmates, with a "needs assessment" and referrals to outside agencies for drug treatment or housing as needed.
Kazik said he's still working up a budget for the court-run program.
"The judges have embraced it. We feel it's going to be a good, vital program to really help a wider range of people while ensuring public safety," Flemings-Davillier said.
"It's not the court's intention to talk about the previous (Vera) program. We just thought it was really important that any pre-trial services be run through the court system. It's a court-related function."
Wool confirmed the impending transfer but declined to comment on it.
The Landrieu administration recently sketched out the plan as a piece of a wider strategy to reduce the jail population, bolstered by a $1.5 million "Safety and Justice Challenge" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The Vera program has expanded over five years to fully cover the felony and state misdemeanors coming through Magistrate Court, though with a limited staff to verify information from defendant interviews.
A grant from Community Baptist Ministries helped jumpstart supervision services aimed at helping released defendants show up to court and stay out of jail.
Wool has said that it was always Vera's intention, from the time when the program started under a federal grant, to ultimately hand it off to a local body, as the New York-based advocacy group has done elsewhere in the country.
Often, however, that has meant the creation of a new nonprofit or adoption of the program by an existing local nonprofit — not necessarily by a court whose judges have long bristled at being tied to a risk score when making decisions on inmate releases.
Some officials think the shift could improve the assessment program, and perhaps shrink the city's tab for housing Orleans Parish inmates, if only because the judges will own it.
Cantrell, who two years ago signed a short-lived order barring all Vera reports from the court record, declined to comment on the change, saying only, "We're still working on it at this point."
Outspoken local bail bondsman Matthew Dennis, who has attacked Vera for years, said he remains doubtful that the group is really turning over the program to the court.
"Please forgive me if I'm skeptical," said Dennis, who has argued that the Vera program is an unproven and dangerous threat to a monetary bail system that he says brings needed accountability to inmates' release.
Dennis called this week for New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux's office to audit the pre-trial services program under Vera.
Dennis said he also plans to file a lawsuit seeking all of the assessments performed by Vera. He said he expects the data to show that the program amounts to misspent money and that Vera has overstated its impact on reducing the jail population.
Attempts to predict the risk of releasing arrestees without bail to hold them accountable are futile or worse, he argued.
"I don't know how to assess risk except in fiction movies," Dennis said.
Vera and other bail reform advocates, however, point to a federal system in which release decisions are based on a defendant's perceived risk to public safety and likelihood to appear in court, not on a bail system they say unfairly punishes those who can't afford to pay.
New Jersey this month implemented voter-approved reforms that largely eliminate monetary bail, with a state-run pre-trial services program to monitor defendants released before trial.
In response to Dennis' call for an audit, Wool said Vera has pushed "from the beginning of this program" to include "each and every risk assessment" in the public record. The court's trial judges agreed to that only within the past two years, and Cantrell still hasn't.
"Judge Cantrell has declined to receive the reports or put them in the court record, and we continue to urge him to do both of those things," Wool said.
Under its funding agreement with the city, Vera has submitted quarterly reports detailing outcomes of the program.
The city did not respond Thursday to a request for details on its agreement with the court or a request for the most recent quarterly reports submitted by Vera.
Flemings-Davillier, meanwhile, insisted that Cantrell is on board with the shift of the program to the court. Still, she said the judges won't necessarily abide by the assessments the program provides on individual inmates.
She said the court hasn't yet determined whether a numbered risk score will be included in the assessments of those arrested.
"All of the judges have committed to doing this, and Judge Cantrell is a team player," she said. "What we can commit to do is consider what the assessment says and use that as a tool. The judges do not want to give up our judicial discretion. There will always be additional factors."