In New Orleans, Vera is working with the mayor, city council, local criminal justice agencies, judiciary, civic, and community organizations, and foundation partners to address long-standing problems in the city’s criminal justice system. These stakeholders are working together as the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance (CJLA), an unprecedented coalition focused on resolving systemic justice challenges.
In partnership with CJLA, Vera’s New Orleans office is working to
- Expedite screening: In 2009, the alliance implemented new procedures that reduced—from 60 days to 5 days—the time it takes to make a screening decision and bring those charged to arraignment. As a result of this reform, minor or weak cases will be promptly dismissed or diverted, people—whether charged or not—will spend less time in pre-charge detention, and resources will be freed to focus on serious, violent cases.
- Rationalize pretrial decision making: Vera and CJLA are changing 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. Launched in April 2012, the New Orleans Pretrial Services demonstration project allows detention resources to target those who pose a risk to public safety and also reduces the role wealth or poverty plays in determining which defendants are detained prior to trial. (Read the press release from October 2010 about a grant Vera received from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to develop a pretrial services system in New Orleans.)
- Develop alternatives to incarceration: For those who plead guilty or are found guilty of low-level offenses, Vera is helping New Orleans plan a full range of sentencing alternatives to incarceration. Examples include community-based supervision and expanded drug treatment and mental health care options.
New Orleans’s urgent need for criminal justice reform
Hurricane Katrina pushed a criminal justice system that was already in trouble—with high crime rates and poor communication among justice agencies—to the brink of collapse. Although local officials restored much of the system, serious challenges remained. People routinely sat in jail for up to two months before being charged; people were detained for no other reason than they could not afford bond; capacity to treat people with mental illness and drug addiction was limited; and violent crime rates were exceedingly high.
In spring 2007, at the request of the New Orleans City Council, Vera proposed several initiatives to make the city’s criminal justice system more fair and effective based on national good practices. The institute then helped facilitate a groundbreaking retreat of the city’s criminal justice leaders, an event that led to the formation of the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance and a Statement of Commitment to specific reforms. With support from the Open Society Foundations and Baptist Community Ministries, Vera, the CJLA, and New Orleans civic leaders are working to put these ideas for reform into practice. (Read an article about the CJLA in Just 'Cause.)
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.