Vera Institute’s Pretrial Program Showing Early Results!
My watchopp blog often is full of dour, nasty, sad entries about a broken criminal justice system that keeps getting worse instead of better.
Here’s some very good news about the meaningful launch of a progressive program meant to keep more folks out of jail, and that’s always a great idea. Jail reform is busting out in New Orleans, and as much as Marlin Gusman and his allies would like to put that genie back in the bottle, that just won’t work anymore.
Gusman apparently sees the way the wind is blowing, as his jail census has been cut way back by outside forces as well as his own moves. This is why he closed the House of Detention (HOD), an old building from the 1960s that doesn’t fit into his plans for an all new jail complex either. He now allows the Vera Institute to run their pretrial screening program from inside OPP. Orleans head jailers don’t often allow third party do-gooders to set up shop inside his house! It’s a loss of control issue that makes any head jailer nervous, no matter how necessary the program might be.
He’s also facing a federal consent decree that has been in negotiation for a couple of years. Gusman used to drag his feet and dreaded this alternative. Allowing Vera in and closing HOD are powerful signals that are supposed to show the federal authorities he’s a new man. Without a doubt that’s way too little way too late for that. At this time, I don’t believe any action by Gusman could forestall the eventuality of this consent decree.
Almost two years ago, the Vera Institute of Justice work began on this program. Overcoming political obstacles and making sure all parties agreed on the final terms took a long time. A key sticking point was placing Vera staff inside OPP’s secured areas. Decisions that end up with less inmates impact the bottom line of the jail system. The D.A. and courts get a share of bail bond forfeitures, so if less bail bonds are issued, less with end up forfeited.
According to Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans office, “Everyone’s taking a risk here, “Wool said. “They’re taking a risk in investing in a program that in our jurisdictions has proven to pay back two- or three-fold. But there’s no guarantee.” He’s alluding to the possibility of an inmate committing a violent crime while free on bond based on a faulty risk assessment.
The Vera scale uses a point system, ranging from 0-6 points (“low risk”) to 16-23 (“high risk”). Wool says he expects the program eventually to yield “significant increases” in non financial pre-trial release arrangements, including personal surety bonds (PSBUs) or orders to release defendants on their own recognizance. Along with doing the assessments, Vera’s pretrial services staff members will issue court date reminders to defendants. During a test run of the program in December, Vera assessed 180 inmates, 17 of whom were released on their own recognizance or given PSBUs.
The result is a numbered ranking and a rating of low, moderate or high risk assigned to each arrestee. The judges and commissioners have the final say. The new system is designed to focus bail decisions less on the crime and more on the defendant. This is a huge improvement for unfortunate arrestees.
The program is being funded with what remains of a two-year-old, $465,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, plus $200,000 from the city’s 2012 general fund. The program is costing around $45, 000 per month to operate so far. New Orleans Crime Commissioner James Carter said he expects the city to continue its support indefinitely.