Vera’s New Orleans Office has collaborated with government, community, and civic organizations to develop and operate the city’s first comprehensive pretrial services system. The demonstration project, launched in 2012 with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and now funded by the City of New Orleans, is integrating good practices into the criminal justice system, with the goal of yielding greater public safety and fairness.
Vera and its local partners have developed a pretrial detention decision-making system guided by standards established by the American Bar Association and the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies. These standards are grounded in the principle that people should be detained pending adjudication only when they pose a significant risk to public safety or of flight. The design of New Orleans Pretrial Services incorporates
- universal screening,
- interviews with defendants and investigation of information prior to first appearance,
- the use of an empirical risk-assessment instrument to guide release decisions,
- the ability to supervise defendants, and
- a court-date reminder system to help defendants meet their obligations.
This demonstration project is a collaboration among New Orleans criminal justice system stakeholders. With Vera's assistance, they have designed the risk assessment instrument, obtained access to criminal history data, and encouraged judicial decision makers to use the resulting information. After a month-long test run in December 2011 and January 2012, operations commenced on April 30, 2012. With funding from the City of New Orleans the project was scaled to full implementation in 2013.
Why does New Orleans need a pretrial services system?
Every city needs pretrial services. New Orleans, in particular, detains residents at significantly higher rates than do other U.S. cities and counties. The lack of a sound pretrial detention decision-making process contributes to the extraordinarily high rate of detention—and does so at a high social and economic cost that may jeopardize public safety rather than improve it. Because Louisiana law allows the court to detain an individual for 60 days before a prosecutorial charge must be filed, the consequences of a decision to jail an arrested person are especially severe in New Orleans. Although arrest-to-filing times have dropped significantly in recent years, many people are still being detained for weeks without charges, often for nonviolent offenses that ultimately lead to non-incarceration sentences if prosecution is initiated. For the city, this represents an unnecessary cost. For detained persons, it can result in lost employment, increased homelessness, disruption of treatment services, and increased future criminal activity.