City Initiative to reduce jail population draws criticism over low bonds

Published: Oct. 30, 2018 at 10:50 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - “Bail is being set at levels that are less than what it costs to pay for a speeding ticket,” according to Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crimes Commission.

Goyeneche believes Magistrate Commissioners are jeopardizing public safety when they set low bonds for suspected violent criminals.

“The end game is to reduce the jail population. The way that you would logically go about that is reducing crime, but the way some people are going about it is allowing some of the dangerous felony offenders to be released on free bail or bail that is at historically low levels,” he said.

“The city’s been focused on this for four to five years,” said Jon Wool.

Wool, with the Vera Institute, said his organization worked alongside city leaders for years to reduce the jail population. In 2016, the national MacArthur Foundation awarded the City of New Orleans a $1.5 million grant.

“That ramped up efforts, including the development of a new risk assessment tool, the public safety assessment,” Wool said.

A public safety assessment report is what Magistrate Commissioners are supposed to look at to help determine a person’s bond.

“So, pretrial assessment, the PSA, they look at someone’s age, prior convictions, prior sentence or incarceration,” said Shelby Flynn.

Flynn is the city’s senior project manager for criminal justice. She said several factors are considered to predict a person’s risk level, such as whether they’ll return to court or commit a new crime. The risk levels range from one to five. If an individual is given a risk level one through four, it’s recommended that they be released with an ROR or free bond, if eligible. A judge, though, cannot issue an ROR bond to an individual arrested for a violent crime. But Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said they’re working around that by setting very low bonds.

“Unfortunately, that has been a very, very serious and a very bad consequence. We’ve seen bonds set as low as $1,” Cannizzaro said.

“Actually, we recommend that this bail be $1. Make it really clear that you think this person should be released, so don’t make them pay $500 or $5,000. Set it at $1, and that’s consistent with state law,” Wool said.

In October of 2017, each Criminal District Court judge signed a document obtained by FOX 8. Then-Chief Judge Laurie White issued the order to Magistrate Commissioners to “increase the use of ROR” bonds to “safely and appropriately” reduce the jail population, a goal of the city’s Safety and Justice Challenge formed under Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s Criminal Justice Commissioner, Tenisha Stevens, said that order is still in effect.

“Keeping in mind it’s an order, however, the assessment is just a tool. It’s not a law, so the judges still have discretion to set bond or do whatever they so desire based on their discretion,” said Stevens.

Magistrate Commissioner Robert Blackburn gave 29-year-old Gino McDowell a $200 cash bond after police said he threatened to kill a man he previously tried to rob.

“This is an individual who has not only a significant past of violent activity, but is again engaging in violent criminal activity,” Cannizzaro said.

McDowell’s risk assessment is level three. The city’s public safety assessment model recommended that he get out of jail, and he did - with a $200 bond. The DA’s office jumped right in and asked for an increase.

Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell agreed and reset McDowell’s bond at $15,000. Police are still searching for McDowell.

“His prior record, the crime, the threat that he poses to the people of New Orleans and the fact that he’s out on a bond for a crime of violence should have been significant enough to say this is an individual who does not deserve to be out on bond,” Cannizzaro said.

In another case, police say 31-year-old Kerwin Duncan burglarized an Airbnb rental while someone was inside. The same day police picked him up, Commissioner Albert Thibodeaux gave Duncan a $50 cash bond. His risk assessment was a level four, which recommends he get out of jail with intense supervision. His criminal history includes one felony conviction, 14 misdemeanor convictions and he’s failed to appear in court 15 times.

“That discretion still is decided by the judge, so if the judge decides that person needs to be released, that’s a discretion that is made by the judge,” said Stevens.

“I don’t think this should be a wholesale movement to simply reduce bonds to willy nilly without taking into account the facts and circumstances of a case,” Cannizzaro said.

Stevens said the ultimate goal is to make the city safer.

“I want you to be clear, bonds do not make our city safer. Holding people in jail does not make our city safer. However, what we have researched is that we have some of the poorest people sitting in jail because they can’t make bail or bond,” Stevens said.

Wool doesn’t believe there should be bonds at all. He said it should be about detention or release.

“When release is the appropriate considered decision of a judge, there’s no reason to set a money bail. When the state law requires some money bail, $1 is the way to go,” said Wool.

“When you have some Magistrate Commissioners that are setting bail for $1 for a violent felony, a couple of hundred dollars for a rape, $50 for residential burglaries and things like that, I think that is irresponsible,” Goyeneche said.

Cannizzaro said bonds are intended to ensure a person returns to court while taking into consideration whether they’re a danger to the community.

“If you are serious about trying to get people out of jail and keep them out of jail, then let’s start the rehabilitative process from the moment that individual is released from jail. Let’s put our focus on preventing people from getting arrested for crimes rather than after they get arrested, ‘Let’s just let everyone out,’” Cannizzaro said.

“Let’s focus on the way to let the person be successful and not make them pay their way to liberty,” said Wool.

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