For more than six years, Vera’s New Orleans office has worked to advance practices that achieve equality, fairness, and effectiveness in the administration of justice. To achieve these goals, Vera works with government, residents, and local organizations as a center for data analysis, technical assistance, and project facilitation. Several successful efforts have demonstrated to agency leaders, city government, and other stakeholders that change is not only possible but well within reach.
In partnership with local system actors, city leaders and community organizations, Vera’s New Orleans office is working to
- Rationalize pretrial decision making: Vera is working to change pretrial detention policy so that people who are not a threat to public safety and who can be counted on to appear in court are released without financial obligation. In April 2012 Vera launched the New Orleans Pretrial Services - a demonstration project that allows detention resources to target those who pose a risk to public safety and reduces the role wealth or poverty plays in determining which defendants are detained prior to trial.
- Reduce unnecessary detention in the local jail: Vera is working with city government and community organizations to identify instances when people are unnecessarily detained in Orleans Parish Prison. This effort helped inform the city’s need for a reasonably sized jail and for practice changes throughout the local criminal justice system that would safely reduce the jail population. Vera is continuing to seek partnerships to support this work and further the recommendations for sustainable reductions in the jail population.
- Promote collaborative decision making: The participation of all parties involved in the criminal justice system is key in developing locally-feasible and sustainable practice changes. Vera is working to improve collaboration among criminal justice agencies and to bring together all branches of government, community organizations, and residents through facilitated recurring conversations with these stakeholders.
New Orleans’s urgent need for criminal justice reform
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a tipping point for the New Orleans criminal justice system. The national scrutiny of the horrors that occurred during the storm also served as a public unmasking of deep, systemic troubles that were commonplace before Katrina. Pre-storm New Orleans led the nation in its local detention rate and spent one-third of its budget on public safety, yet violent crime and community distrust of the system ran sky high.
As part of its post-Katrina recovery efforts, the City Council invited Vera to assess the criminal justice system and propose locally-feasible reforms to increase public safety and justice. Vera’s report was adopted in 2007 by the Council and served as a blueprint to guide criminal justice reform over the years. This represented a unique opportunity for change that brought together the District Attorney’s office, Orleans Public Defenders, the New Orleans Police Department, the Sheriff’s office, the Municipal and Criminal District Courts, and the Clerk of Court to form the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance (CJLA). The CJLA created working groups, facilitated by Vera, to develop, implement, and monitor the various reform initiatives described below. Vera opened a local office early in 2008 to help develop these initiatives, offer policy advice and data analysis to the city, and promote civic and community involvement.
For more information, contact office director Jon Wool.
Since 2008, the New Orleans law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C. has provided Vera’s New Orleans staff with office space. We are extremely grateful for this ongoing in-kind support from our colleagues. For more information about the firm, visit www.stonepigman.com.