New Orleans Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens called Mayor Mitch Landrieu's proposed 2012 budget for the court "deeply disturbing" at the Nov. 2 City Council budget hearing. The Landrieu administration's 2012 budget for the court is $2.56 million, a decrease of $233,000 from the 2011 budget, and $1 million less than the $3.6 million the court requested.
Last year Municipal Court, which historically handles cases in which suspects are accused of breaking city ordinances, also began taking on nonviolent misdemeanor cases from state court and the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court — an arrangement intended to give the District Attorney's office more time to handle state felony cases. Now, Sens says, his court will begin hearing all misdemeanor cases.
According to its budget request, Municipal Court had funding for 52 full-time employees in 2011 and expects to handle 80 percent of all charges filed by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) — including 40 percent of what has been the Criminal District Court's docket. Its budget request includes $800,000 to cover increased expenses, with a large portion allocated to improving mental health services.
Sens says his court sees a startling rate of recidivism among mentally ill defendants who are not competent to stand trial. Typically, he says, those defendants are referred to University Hospital, which releases them after 72 hours. Many of those defendants end up back in Municipal Court "time and time again," Sens says. "The city has no resources for the mentally ill and that is hugely problematic." The number of mentally ill defendants in his court will only increase as Municipal Court takes on more state misdemeanor cases, he adds.
Sens also has asked the city for $350,000 to fund mental health commission evaluations, which are required when it is suspected a state defendant is mentally ill. Sens further notes that if psychiatric facilities don't have enough beds to accommodate these offenders, the suspects are sent to Orleans Parish jails, where incarceration costs the city $22 a day — plus medical expenses.
Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, when questioned by councilmembers following Sens' presentation, acknowledged that some adjustments may have to be made.
Contacted by Gambit after the meeting, Cecile Tebo, a mental health advocate and, until earlier this month, the head of the NOPD's Crisis Unit, says she's not surprised at the state's lack of mental health funding. In the past, she has worked with Sens to plead with the state for more resources to handle the mentally ill. "I know there's just a huge wealth of frequent flyers [mentally ill re-offenders] in his court," Tebo says. "It really is a public health and safety issue."
A lack of state funding is the primary problem, Tebo says, but Landrieu's proposed cuts to the Municipal Court budget exacerbate the situation.
"My response to the city is: This should be the first allocation of money. We have been screaming for years that we have an epidemic of chronically mentally ill, that are creating a public safety concern," Tebo adds. "It is horrific. It's unimaginable. And let me tell you, it's negligent. This is pure negligence." — Charles Maldonado