In The News › Audit: Red ink flowing from N.O. criminal court

Jan 2, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

Audit: Red ink flowing from N.O. criminal court

January 2, 2014

The Advocate

Audit: Red ink flowing from N.O. criminal court

The loss of thousands of marijuana cases and other nonviolent cases has meant lean times for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, numbers from a recent audit show.

The audit, just released by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office, found the court lost more than $1.6 million in 2012, or nearly half of its cash assets.

A fiscal gash that opened in 2011 continued to bleed in 2012, according to the audit by the accounting firm Luther Speight & Co. The losses far eclipsed savings from staff reductions and the judges’ decision to drop costly, bonus insurance plans that sparked allegations of profligate and illegal spending.

The tide of red ink continued in 2013, acknowledged Rob Kazik, the court’s judicial administrator. He said the court has about $300,000 on hand to keep up with paychecks for its 120 employees, but little else in the reserve fund that a few years ago exceeded $3 million.

The audit blames the bleeding on losses in revenue from court fees levied on criminal defendants, as well as in payments from other government agencies. However, the numbers also suggest the court severely lowballed the expected impact of reduced caseloads, missing the mark by $858,000, or 32 percent, in its budget forecast for revenue from fines and fees.

The court’s pleas of poverty have failed to sway the city. Since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010, the city has tightened the spigot on the criminal court, reducing the city’s contribution to the court from $2.4 million in 2011 to a projected $1.5 million for 2014.

The portion of that money earmarked for payroll has been slashed in half, Kazik said. The court has reduced its staff by 18 people through attrition, he said.

In the meantime, an estimated 3,000 cases per year have walked across Gravier Street to Municipal Court, in a move launched three years ago by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Several hundred marijuana cases have traveled in the same direction, after the City Council in 2010 made minor pot possession a municipal crime.

Fees levied on Municipal Court defendants go directly to the city.

The shift comes as the number of arrests — and thus the tally of court cases — continues to slide, in a trend the Metropolitan Crime Commission credits to a shrunken police force.

The result was that total court revenue shrank to $7.6 million in 2012, down from $9.1 million the year before, the audit found.

The court caught a few breaks: a $400,000 windfall from an asset forfeiture in a major pharmaceutical scam case, and savings on meal spending with a sharp downturn in jury trials, Kazik said.

Aside from the budget breakdown, the audit cited the court for dragging its feet, sometimes for months, in doling out money from fines and fees to other agencies such as the public defender’s office.

The court claims it has since improved, and Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton agreed.

“They used to just give us a check and say, ‘Here’s what we owe you.’ Now we actually get an accounting of where the payments come from,” Bunton said.

The audit also faulted the court for lax accounting of its employees’ hours. The court offered no defense of that claim. The audit also echoed the findings of a 2012 report by Purpera’s office that found the judges improperly used more than $200,000 a year in public money to buy supplemental life and health insurance for themselves, while also spending excessively on travel.

That report followed a critique of the judges’ spending by the crime commission, and a letter from Cannizzaro to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office, alleging gross misconduct by the judges — though Cannizzaro admitted doing the same thing when he sat on the bench. The judges ended the practice last year under duress.

In the meantime, the size of the court itself remains under attack.

A state Supreme Court committee is scheduled next month to offer the findings from its statewide review of court caseloads. The Bureau of Governmental Research has suggested that the city’s seven courts could make do with fewer than half their current judges, at a savings of $14 million. Criminal court in Orleans Parish, for instance, needs 6.3 judges, not its current 13, according to studies cited by the government watchdog group.

According to BGR, eliminating a single criminal court judge would result in more than $715,000 in savings. All of the criminal court judgeships come up for election this year.

Jan 2, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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