Orleans Criminal Court facing big budget cuts - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Orleans Criminal Court facing big budget cuts

New Orleans, La. -

For much of the day Monday, judges of Orleans Criminal Court met on the second floor, trying to figure a way out of an unexpected 31 percent cut to their budget.

Six weeks ago, New Orleans' City Council slashed the Criminal Court budget, and the court is now looking at possibly dozens of layoffs and a possible delay in jury trials.

"That's going to be catastrophic.  They've always cut it to the bone -- that's a big cut," said FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti.

Sources say the judges are considering whether to begin utilizing the pre-trial program run by the Vera Institute.  In the final hours of the city's budget approval process, Vera's budget was increased to $600,000, just as roughly the same amount was being cut from the courts.

While Vera says the program is paying for itself through reduced prison population, bail bondsmen such as Matt Dennis have rallied against it.

"They are not qualified to take the place of judges in determining who goes to jail or who gets bail," Dennis told FOX 8.  "New Orleans has always had a pre-trial program.  The idea is nothing new.  The idea that we need a non-profit group to come in and do it, that's new."

So far the judges don't know how many people they have to lay off.  They plan on dealing with the budget problem through attrition for the time being.  Seven court workers who have recently left will not be replaced.

But a court spokesman tells FOX 8 that more layoffs are coming, and jury trials could be affected.

Criminal justice sources say, even if the judges vote not to use Vera pre-trial services, there's no guarantee that it will recover Vera's money. Only the council can make that decision.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the head of the council's Criminal Justice Committee, sent this statement on the matter to FOX 8:

"Pretrial services is a critical component of the City's efforts to make our criminal justice system more effective and efficient.  The program provides the judges and commissioners in Criminal District Court with much more complete information about the risk of flight and risk to public safety that each defendant poses.  In August 2012, representatives from all of the relevant criminal justice agencies, including the Criminal District Court, testified to the Council's Criminal Justice Committee about the success of the program and the benefits it provides to each of them.  The Court was also intricately involved in an 18-month collaborative effort to create this program from the seed money that the U.S. Justice Department awarded to the Vera Institute for this purpose.  The decisions regarding the budgeting of Criminal District Court made by the Administration and the Council were in no way connected to the decision to fund the pretrial services program this year.  It was the Council's determination that the benefits that pretrial services provides, both in terms of cost savings to the City and increased efficiency within the criminal justice system, are well worth our investment in the program.  Indeed, we have already saved nearly $863,000 in prisoner housing costs since pretrial services began operating last Spring, and we anticipate that we will see significantly greater savings as the program expands.  Discussions among the parties are ongoing, and I trust that the program will continue to operate as envisioned."

We also reached out for comment from the Vera Institute but have not heard back from them.

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