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.
A full list of the initiatives the New Orleans Office works on can be found here.
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.
Until 2012, virtually every person arrested in New Orleans was detained because of the need to pay a commercial bond. Many poor individuals charged with nonviolent offenses, who posed little or no public safety threat, remained in jail for weeks and months at a high cost to themselves, their families, and to the city simply because they did not have the money to pay their bond. This system also disproportionately affected black defendants who spent twice as long in pretrial detention as white defendants for the same offenses. The need for a pretrial services program was identified as a priority in Vera’s 2007 report and a Pretrial Services Working Group was convened in 2011 after Vera was awarded a $463,000 federal grant to develop and operate a pretrial services program in New Orleans. In partnership with government, community, and civic organizations, Vera New Orleans launched the city’s first comprehensive pretrial services program in April 2012. The program utilizes an empirical risk assessment tool to help judges make objective and informed decisions about who should be released and who should be detained during the period between arrest and resolution of the case. It promotes a system that reserves detention for defendants who pose a significant risk to the community or are at risk of not appearing in court. Releasing those people who are low-risk allows them to maintain housing, employment, and family ties while they await trial. This practice also promotes public safety while saving the city money in pretrial incarceration costs.
Jail Population Project
Vera New Orleans’s focus on jail population grew out of our work with residents and city officials to understand the reasons for the oversized jail and to seek an answer to what a “right-sized” jail for New Orleans might be. With input from Vera New Orleans and members of a mayoral working group established to explore the issue, it was determined that the high detention rates were driven not by public safety needs but by a variety of ineffective criminal justice practices. The working group concluded that New Orleans’s safety needs will be satisfied with 1,438 jail beds (appropriate to house roughly 1,300 inmates). This number was dramatically lower than the jail population at the time, which was around 3,000 and growing as Katrina-damaged facilities came back online. Vera New Orleans has undertaken a range of initiatives that have helped drive down the use of unnecessary detention, such as using summonses rather than arrest for minor offenses, helping defendants return to court when required, and developing and operating the city’s first pretrial services program (every jurisdiction’s principal jail population management tool). Nonetheless, the jail population remains at around 2,100: 800 higher than the appropriately planned capacity.
Although there is broad agreement that the City can and should reach a stable jail population for which a 1,438-bed facility will be ample, there is insufficient information about what additional work needs to be done to get there and how. An important step is to better understand who we jail, why, and how system practices drive overuse of local detention. Thus, the Jail Population Project is developing a careful assessment of the jail’s subpopulations (pretrial detainees, alleged probation violators, state prisoners housed locally, etc.), and identifying improved system practices that would safely and significantly reduce unnecessary jail detention.
Expedited Screening and Disposition Initiative
Vera’s initial assessment of the New Orleans criminal justice system revealed that the police, prosecutor, and court used all the time authorized by law (60 days for most offenses) to detain people prior to filing or refusing to file charges. This resulted in large numbers of defendants being held in jail for many weeks before being formerly charged, while nearly half of these were never prosecuted. Even when subsequently charged, many low-level defendants spent more time in jail pretrial than they would if convicted and sentenced. Other jurisdictions reach a final charging decision no more than one week after arrest.
Vera created and facilitated the Expedited Screening and Disposition Working Group, composed of representatives of the criminal justice agencies, to address this issue. An initiative was launched in 2009 that provided for efficient and speedy processing and review of non-victim cases, from writing police reports on the day of arrest to automating transmission of the reports to the prosecutor and a two-day turnaround for prosecutorial review. In the first two years, this initiative drove the mean time from arrest to arraignment from 64 days to 10.5 days, and only five days from arrest to the filing of the DA’s screening decision for those cases initially targeted. Vera continues to work with its government partners on policies and procedures that ensure that these gains continue over time and to expend these positive results to all cases.
Continuity of Cases for Defendants and Attorneys
Until 2011, the Criminal District Court used a case assignment (“allotment”) system in which cases were assigned to a court section only after the District Attorney’s office filed charges, sometimes months after arrest. Vera worked with the District Attorney’s office to propose assignment of cases at the time the incident is reported to the police. All parties would then know from the outset to which section a case was headed and could organize staffing accordingly. The Court adopted this proposal, and as a result, boththe District Attorney’s office and Orleans Public Defenders are now able to structure their organization to allow effective and continuous assignment of attorneys and ensure that all attorneys are available and prepared for court events.
The new allotment rule also enabled the building of a system to notify defendants of their next court date without the need to deliver or mail a subpoena. Previously, defendants released pretrial were not given a court date to return. Vera worked with the Pretrial Services Working Group to develop new protocols to ensure that all system actors are able to generate the date of a defendant’s next court date and hence can notify the defendant in writing in court and again before the defendant leaves the jail. In place since July 2013, this notification system avoids the investment and uncertainty of mailed or hand-delivered subpoenas, allows defendants to better understand their appearance obligations, and overall is expected to reduce missed court dates and failures to appear.
In January 2007, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) responded to municipal offenses (for example, trespass, obstructing public passage, or damage to property) with custodial arrests 80 percent of the time. Other cities have experienced good results from prioritizing the use of summonses (an order to appear in court) for these most minor of criminal offenses. The Municipal Court Working Group under the CJLA banner proposed two ordinances enacted in 2008 by the City Council to promote the use of summonses instead of custodial arrest for nonviolent municipal offenses. The full collaboration of NOPD with the Working Group and the reliance on data to guide the process allowed the initiative to be successful. NOPD officers were soon issuing summonses in 70 percent of all cases with the exception of domestic violence and public intoxication municipal cases; these results are holding steady.
State Misdemeanor Initiative
In 2009, members of the Expedited Screening and Disposition Working Group noted that, despite the initiative, it took too long for detained misdemeanor defendants to reach arraignment in the Criminal District Court (approximately 10 days; five of which were after the filing of the charges). Further, misdemeanors were slowing case processing of serious felony cases. The Municipal Court Working Group developed a plan for nonviolent state misdemeanor cases to be prosecuted in the Municipal Court. Soon after, the group encouraged the city council to enact municipal ordinances, adopted in December 2010, to provide municipal-offense counterparts to these state misdemeanor offenses. These cases (primarily possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia) have since been adjudicated in the Municipal Court, where the arraignment takes place within 24 hours of arrest. Moreover, police officers are now authorized to issue summonses instead of custodial arrest for these offenses.
Crisis Response Center Initiative
Despite the summons initiative, certain minor municipal offenses such as public intoxication continued to result in numerous custodial arrests because individuals charged with these offenses typically present a “danger to self or others,” rendering a summons inappropriate. Likewise, individuals experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis may be arrested or overtax the use of EMS and emergency rooms because their crisis situation requires an immediate intervention. However, NOPD, EMS, Metropolitan Human Services District (MHSD) and Vera agreed that arresting—and detaining in the jail or transporting to the emergency room—an individual in crisis (whether due to mental health or intoxication) is not the most efficient use of resources because often those individuals can be brought out of crisis with an immediate intervention. Vera has partnered with MHSD, NOPD, and EMS to develop a Crisis Response Center model that will address these inefficiencies. Building upon work completed in 2011 to implement a sobering center, this work has renewed vigor with the addition of a behavioral health response, which broadens both the resources available and the potential scope of the social impact and cost savings.
In March 2013, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) requested assistance from Vera New Orleans to guide the development and implementation of policies to support access to public housing, and access to HANO-funded employment, for persons with criminal convictions. Vera’s New Orleans Office and its New York-based Family Justice Program provide guidance to HANO by combining their expertise in housing, reentry, and local criminal justice processes, as informed by the public housing community’s needs and concerns. In May 2013, as a result of this collaboration, HANO adopted policy changes for the admission of persons with criminal convictions. The new policy provides that, except if mandated by federal law, no person will be denied admission to housing or to employment on the sole basis of his or her criminal conviction. To implement this policy, Vera has developed a screening mechanism for applicants with criminal convictions, guided by a risk-based approach that addresses concerns specific to the housing community and an individualized assessment that takes into account factors such as the nature of the offense, criminal history, rehabilitation efforts, community ties, and employment stability.
On the employment side, Vera helped HANO develop a new employment policy that increases job opportunities at HANO and with HANO contractors for persons with criminal convictions, consistent with EEOC guidelines; it similarly bars denial based solely on a criminal conviction. Vera continues to be involved in planning for the full implementation of these policies. It is hoped that this work will encourage other housing authorities to adopt healthier approaches towards persons with criminal convictions. HANO is the first housing authority in the nation to reverse the presumption of denial on the basis of criminal convictions.
Seven Day Detention Reviews
In an effort to prevent the pretrial detention of defendants based solely on their inability to pay a financial bond, Vera is working with members of the Pretrial Services Working Group on processes to routinely revisit some defendants’ bonds. Since March 2014, Vera is identifying low-risk defendants who are detained on a low bond to facilitate bond reviews in all sections of Magistrate Court. If requested by the defendant’s lawyer, the Magistrate or commissioner conducts a review of the initial bond decision for these cases seven days after first appearance. With this system, early in the pretrial process, defendants who pose little risk to public safety and are likely to return to court, but lack the funds to secure their release, are provided a new opportunity to be considered for non-financial release or a reachable bond. The Pretrial Services Working Group is continuously working on ways to increase the program’s effectiveness.
Probation and Parole Detention
Alleged probation and parole violators are routinely detained in the local jail pending a revocation hearing. Vera is developing a partnership with the local state Department of Corrections, Probation and Parole Office to explore alternatives to detention and/or more efficient case processing systems to reduce the length of detention for alleged violators. Using data provided by the state, Vera is analyzing the size of the population of alleged violators detained in Orleans Parish Prison, their characteristics, and the multiple processes that influence their detention, with the aim to inform future policy discussions