Wednesday, November 14, 2012

City budget hearings day 6: "I think this is a ripoff"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 5:27 PM

I was unable to attend yesterday's hearings, but I did catch the news coverage. I also watched a bit on television, and I gather there was a medium-sized scene involving the Vera Pretrial Services program at Orleans Parish Prison. I did attend today, and it came up again during the New Orleans Police Department budget.

On both days, audience members were subjected to frequent comparisons between Vera's Pretrial Services program and the "disastrous" Pretrial Services Division in Philadelphia.

Similar names, but these are two quite different things.

In 2009, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigative series on the local criminal justice system, including its Pretrial Service Division, implemented in 1969 as a reform to the city's bail system. Among the Inquirer's findings: local courts had 47,000 fugitives and more than $1 billion in bail debt on their hands.

During yesterday's and today's hearings, the Inquirer article came up repeatedly — from council members today and public speakers, several from the bail industry, yesterday — a cautionary tale used to discourage the continued funding of the Vera program. But here's the problem: The comparison doesn't really hold up. If one were to actually read the article, he or she would see as much. For one, Pretrial Service in Philadelphia was a replacement of the commercial bail industry. The city effectively banned bail bondsmen, funding and administering bail itself, as well removing an entire industry that serves as a resource in minimizing failures-to-appear and finding bail jumpers.

None of that is happening here. Vera Pretrial Services, which is funded at $184,000 in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's latest budget proposal, is not replacing commercial bail.

None of this is to say that the merits (or lack thereof) of the program aren't worth discussing. But let's talk about it on its merits rather than panic or exaggerate. If Vera's risk assessment model is faulty, that's a problem. If defendants are being released based on Vera assessments and failing to show up to court, that's a problem, likewise if judges come to trust the risk assessments above their own judgement. And maybe this shouldn't be a contract. Maybe it should be run directly by the city, using city employees.

And the bail industry should have a say here. While Vera New Orleans is not, to my knowledge, explicitly committed to "eliminating the commercial bail industry," as one speaker charged last night, a 2007 Vera report on the New Orleans criminal justice system did refer, in its "best practices" section, to some models elsewhere (not Philadelphia) that replaced commercial bail with something else.

However, Vera Pretrial Services is not the same thing as the Philadelphia Pretrial Services Division.

(More after the jump)

As long as I'm complaining about these hearings, let us, again, return to the Office of the Independent Police Monitor and how it can't be the federal court monitor required in the New Orleans Police Department's consent decree. During NOPD budget talks today, council members grilled City Attorney Richard Cortizas about this, practically demanding that IPM Susan Hutson be included in the running for the job. Cortizas told them that the U.S. Department of Justice — which, he said considered the office a part of city government rather than a neutral third-party — was not interested in the idea. If the city were to take her on as monitor, the feds would ask for a second monitor to monitor the IPM, Cortizas said.

Which is perhaps why the language of the consent decree would seem to prevent that from happening. And not only the language of the decree, but also the duties of the Independent Police Monitor — detailed in the city code of ordinances and Hutson's memorandum of understanding with the city — which, for example, include citizen complaint intake and mediation. Those are not duties of the federal monitor. And look here, from page 109 of the consent decree: "The monitor shall only have the duties, responsibilities and authority conferred by this agreement."

(The monitor is also prohibited from talking to the press or the public without permission from NOPD and the federal government. Hutson, on the other hand, has traditionally been quite open with the press.)

Just to be entirely sure I wasn't reading this all wrong, I asked Deputy Police Monitor Simone Levine whether she believed the IPM was even able to submit a bid on the monitor RFP.

"No we're not," said Levine, who had just made a public comment before council. "I had actually meant to say that."

This has been such a major point of contention because Landrieu's budget reduces the number of commissioned NOPD officers to 1,260, from more than 1,300 in 2012. Council members believe giving Hutson the job would save money that could be redirected from the consent decree budget to the police personnel budget.

Hutson said last year that she needed about $1.5 million per year to adequately run her office, which does, yes, perform several of the same (or very similar) functions a federal monitor would.

The monitor is allocated $2 million next year. If Hutson could monitor the entire police department for less than that, and in fact now only operates on about $450,000, couldn't the city cut that cost? Nowhere does the consent decree specify that the contract must be $2 million per year, nor that Hutson couldn't share resources. In fact it encourages the two offices to work together to "avoid duplication of effort and expenses." Just $500,000 in savings could pay for about 10 new NOPD officers. (The total $7 million allocation for consent decree costs is equal to about 150 new officers, but the city's going to have to pay some, most or all of that to avoid being found in contempt of court. Or at at least it will as soon as Federal Judge Susie Morgan signs off on the agreement, which she hasn't yet.)

City officials say the estimate is based on consent decrees in other cities, like Detroit and Los Angeles. LAPD's monitor, first brought on more than 10 years ago, was about $2 million per year. Detroit, likewise, paid between $1 million and $2 million annually for its monitor contracts. And many of the bids for New Orleans are more or less within that range.

"I think this is a ripoff. We don't have $7 million," said District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. "You can't tell me this will put more boots on the ground. You can't tell me this will make my district safer ... And if it doesn't do that, I won't pay for it."

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