FOX 8 Investigation: Crime fighters call city’s initiative to reduce jail population flawed

FOX 8 Investigation: Crime fighters call city’s initiative to reduce jail population flawed

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In July, undercover detectives positioned themselves in the 3600 block of Mardi Gras Boulevard in Algiers to make drug buys. They said Calvin Hills approached the passenger side of an undercover detective’s vehicle and sold him crack cocaine for $20. According to the warrant, Hills even demanded extra money from the detective for getting him the drugs.

Investigators moved in, and Hills went to jail.

In Magistrate Court, Commissioner Albert Thibodeaux gave Hills a $250 cash bond for distribution of crack cocaine. Hills got out of jail the next day.

“When a drug dealer is released on an insignificant bond, it is no deterrent factor because it didn’t cost him a penny to get out. Somebody else paid for it, and a $250 bond two years ago was unheard of,” said Rafael Goyeneche, who heads the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Today, bonds like the one given to Hills is pretty common in Magistrate Court. In fact, the City of New Orleans is behind the initiative to reduce the jail population. That initiative involves a recommendation to release the majority of people arrested without giving them a bond at all.

“Money does not make us safer," said Jon Wool with the VERA Institute. "It’s the enemy of safe communities. It leads to disparity between people of different economic classes. It’s unconstitutional, as I said, and it makes judges into revenue collectors. It ends up costing the City of New Orleans and all of its tax payers huge amounts of money. It’s why New Orleans led all cities in the nation in over-incarceration, and we’re changing all of that.”

The initiative started under Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Then, Chief Judge Laurie White issued an order to Magistrate Court Commissioners to increase the use of ROR or free bonds with suspected criminals.

Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s Administration said that order is still in effect.

Free bonds, though, cannot be given to suspects arrested for a crime of violence. Instead, commissioners are issuing bonds as low as $1 for felony arrests.

“It’s an insult to the police department and an insult to the general public of New Orleans,” Goyeneche said.

Goyeneche said low bonds are diminishing the public’s confidence in the system.

“I think the way that you have fewer people in custody is you reduce crime, and when someone commits a serious offense - and I consider drug distribution a serious offense - I think the bail needs to be set by the risk they pose to the community,” Goyeneche said.

When setting a bond, magistrate commissioners are given a recommendation, and the city pays for though a service called a risk assessment.

“They actually determine when a defendant is arrested. They do a background check to see what the criminal histories are and what risk factors he or she may face,” said Criminal Justice Commissioner Tenisha Stevens.

The commissioner gets that risk assessment, which ultimately shows a defendant’s risk level and offers recommendations to either release the individual or have a detention hearing for them.

“It’s a flawed methodology. This assessment tool I don’t think takes into consideration the risk that the offender may pose to the public. I don’t believe drug distribution is a victimless crime and a non-violent crime,” Goyeneche said.

Suspected drug dealer Hills had a risk level three out of five.

“This is an individual that’s charged with distribution. He has six prior felony convictions, five of the six are drug-related. One is a felon in possession of a firearm, so we don’t want to see something like this escalate. When you set bail at $250 for this, I think you’re lighting the fuse,” Goyeneche said.

After Hills bonded out of jail, he didn’t show up for his arraignment. Now, he’s wanted by police.

“So, release is recommended for risk levels one through four, but again - it’s just a recommendation. We always emphasize there are a lot of factors that the PSA doesn’t consider, and that is really important. That’s why judicial discretion is important,” Shelby Flynn said.

“We have seen individuals who have been released, go out and commit other crimes,” Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said.

Cannizzaro also believes the risk assessments are flawed, but Jon Wool of the VERA Institute disagrees.

“The tool of the public safety assessment is a national gold standard tool. I really applaud the city and the judges for bringing us that tool,” Wool said.

It’s a tool the city says it wasn’t alone in creating.

“This is something we developed with all of our criminal justice stake holders, the district attorney, the court and the public defenders,” Flynn said.

Cannizzaro, though, said his office was only part of the early discussions about the risk assessments. He said his office even did a selection of 60 random defendants who had recently appeared in Magistrate Court. Using the city’s proposed risk assessment method, the DA’s office determined the risk level for each individual.

Cannizzaro found 34 of the 60 arrested suspects were a risk level one and recommended for release with no supervision. Of those risk level one individuals, 13 were arrested for murder.

Cannizzaro said the problem is the risk assessment method doesn’t take into account what a person is actually arrested for, and instead looks at their criminal history.

“So for that reason, I have some very serious concerns about the grading level, the manner in which they classify individuals in this, as they call it, ‘tool,’” Cannizzaro said.

With so much concern, Cannizzaro said he rejected the city’s proposed method and suggested a modified version, but he said the court shot it down.

“What we’re seeing now, we’re trying to create these fictions and trying to adjust bonds with a cash bond system that, in my opinion, is being detrimental to public safety and harming the justice system,” Cannizzaro said.

The city, however, stands by its push to reduce the jail population.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to do. We are excited that our stakeholders are here and that they’re finding solutions to help us all achieve the goals that we recognize nobody thinks they should be in jail if they don’t deserve to be there,” Flynn said.

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