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Judges’ plea for more money seems to fall on deaf ears

By Claire Galofaro

The Advocate

October 29, 2013

The judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court went before the City Council on Monday to plead for more money in 2014, warning the court could sputter to a halt if they’re not given more than Mayor Mitch Landrieu has offered.

“We’ve been clawing on, holding onto the table,” Chief Judge Camille Buras said. “We’re going to be like a kitten who’s fallen over the side in five to six months.”

For the most part, the council seemed inclined to let the kitten fall.

The city last year slashed its contribution to the court by 31 percent, from $2.2 million in 2012 to $1.5 million in 2013.

Landrieu’s proposed budget for 2014 offers that same figure again.

When the judges went before the council last year, pleading for increased funding, they threatened that operations at the courthouse might be “ground to a halt” if they weren’t given more money. They were not.

Buras said Monday the court has tightened its belt and avoided catastrophic budget shortfalls for the year by reducing salaries for certain employees, declining to fill vacant positions and generally cutting costs. A multi-thousand-dollar fine paid by a convicted pharmaceutical drug kingpin kept them in the black, she said.

But it’s unlikely the penny-pinching can sustain the court another year, Buras said. She added that the very people the court system is tasked with saving — drug addicts, the mentally ill, wayward young people — are the most likely to be devastated by cuts to the court’s diversion and outreach programs.

“We’re really hurting the people we’re trying to help,” Buras said.

The court’s accountant, Curtis A. Moret, said the court faces an anticipated budget deficit of $863,006. It is expected to take in $3.86 million, from city and state taxpayers as well as grants, fines and fees. But its expenditures are projected to be around $4.7 million, with salaries accounting for just under $4 million.

Other anticipated costs include $55,300 for legal conferences, $68,800 for office supplies, $49,900 for law books, $7,000 for coffee, $8,550 for bottled water, $59,200 for jury expenses and another $56,300 for jury meals.

“We can’t sustain that proposed deficit,” Moret said. “We’re going to have to make some hard decisions, unless we come into some unanticipated money.”

The council’s annual budget deliberations come at a poor timed for the troubled court, The same judges were before the council two weeks ago, trying to convince them that a growing pile of reports that describe the parish’s court system as bloated and overstaffed are misguided and poorly researched.

The Bureau of Governmental Research released a report last month suggesting that criminal court, with a dozen judges, may have twice the number it really needs.

The Mayor’s Office and the city’s inspector general have joined the call to whittle down the number of judges.

Among the topics of conversation before the council on Monday was the city’s “pre-trial services” program, an 18-month-old initiative run by the Vera Institute of Justice, of New York, that is aimed at keeping non-violent offenders out of Orleans Parish Prison. Judges are supposed to use Vera’s reports when setting bail.

The program is loathed by both bail bondsmen and some judges, who have suggested that the money would be better spent if rerouted back to the court.

But the program is one of the few in line to get more money next year. Landrieu has allotted it $584,000, a $100,000 increase from this year.

The administration hails the Vera program as a money-saver, a way to reduce the city’s large and expensive prison population by carefully assessing the risk each person arrested for a serious crime poses to the community if allowed to go free pending trial.

Several council members asked the judges before them — Buras, Ben Willard and Franz Zibilich — whether they would like to oversee the pre-trial program themselves.

Buras said the court is currently discussing that idea with the administration.

Council President Jackie Clarkson seemed peeved that she had not known the city was working to somehow fold the program under the judiciary’s wing. “I’m glad I put us in the loop,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s a formal loop,” Buras responded, adding that the debate over pretrial services has raged for “an inordinate amount of time.”

“It’s time we get something done, isn’t it?” Clarkson retorted.

Councilwoman Stacy Head said she is opposed to the idea of letting the judges oversee the risk-assessment program, citing what she views as the judiciary’s history of autonomy and occasional contrariness.

When asked to agree on a topic, judges go into a meeting, then come out and say, “I’m a judge, I don’t have to agree with anybody, I can do whatever I want,” Head complained.

“That’s what happens when you get on that robe, just like it happens when you get into this (council) seat,” she said. “We start forgetting what are jobs are.”

Council members, once again this year, seemed disinclined to hand the court any more money than the administration has recommended.

They were far more receptive to District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. In fact, they all but offered him a quarter-million dollars more than he asked for.

Cannizzaro told the council he is satisfied with the $6.3 million the mayor has offered him, the same amount he received this year.

“I want to be very clear. I do have long-term funding goals for our office, but given the financial situation the city finds itself in presently, I recognize that now is not the time to discuss those goals,” he said.

Cannizzaro read from his latest “State of the Criminal Justice System” address and generally avoided a grilling from the council.

Council members fixed on his diversion program, a less controversial version of the pre-trial services program. It selects non-violent, first-time offenders and offers them rehabilitation rather than prison.

“It’s working better than anything,” Clarkson said of the program’s reduction of the city’s prison population.

Cannizzaro said that 800 offenders are currently enrolled in the program, which costs his office about $250,000.

Doubling that budget would allow him to hire five more case managers, he said, and enroll twice as many people in the program.

Clarkson said that “seems like a bargain.”

“It seems like the biggest win-win we’ve got going in this whole system,” she said.

Cannizzaro said he’d gladly accept an extra quarter-million dollars.

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