The Vera Institute for Justice is scheduled to begin a pre-trial risk assessment program inside Central Booking at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) on April 30. The program is designed to be used as a guide to help Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges set bond amounts based on the severity of defendants' crimes and criminal histories, as well as on a number of economic factors such as employment and resident status.
Vera pre-trial services program director Elizabeth "Lisa" Simpson and Vera New Orleans director Jon Wool say they hope the assessments will lead to a decrease in the number of pre-trial defendants in OPP who simply can't afford to pay a large bail and pose little danger of committing violence or fleeing while awaiting trial.
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 nonfinancial 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.
Still, Simpson says, the point of the program is not simply to open OPP's gates. The program could just as likely lead to higher bond amounts for high-risk defendants — people accused of a violent crime or who have a history of fleeing before trial.
"I think the people we've spoken with know it's not about getting more [releases on recognizance]," she says. "It's about getting a risk assessment. I don't think we've seen much skepticism." With the help of two employees, Simpson says she expects to handle three-quarters of the defendants booked between Monday and Friday, or about 35 per day.
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. — Charles Maldonado