The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Court News This Week

We’ve got some good, some bad, and some ugly in court news this week.

The good: Jarvis DeBerry wrote a nice piece on the opportunities that responsible, non-violent offenders are getting through the Re-entry Court run by Judges Hunter and White.

And even better: Court Watch NOLA noted a sea change in public perception at Wednesday’s City Council Criminal Justice Committee meeting. During the meeting, City Council President Stacy Head urged the District Attorney to monitor the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of the (alleged) Mother’s Day Second Line shooters to make sure the feds “don’t drop the ball, and if they do that you can pick it up.” Under the previous administration, the idea that the D.A. might be better equipped than the feds to handle important prosecutions would have been laughable, but the office has come a long way under District Attorney Cannizzaro (with more work to do, of course).

The bad: Sheriff Gusman continues to miss court-mandated deadlines for reforming Orleans Parish Prison.

And in related news, the ugly: another video showing inmates with drugs and contraband in OPP has surfaced. OPP needs to change the way it operates, especially given the huge number of defendants incarcerated there, many for nonviolent offenses, while awaiting trial.

Half-Time Stats and the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July is not only a celebration of American history and our shared values, but also marks 2014’s halfway point. And this most recent Independence Day was a great reminder that there is nothing more American than regular citizens working to hold the government accountable.

Our Declaration of Independence states that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed,” a revolutionary idea echoed in the very first words of the Constitution: “We the People…” The right to “a speedy and public trial” is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, meanwhile, while Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address declares a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.”

That’s why Court Watch NOLA is taking this opportunity to thank our citizen volunteers for their work. Halfway through 2014, over 60 CWN volunteers have observed 492 mornings of court in 2014 alone, for an average of approximately 47 volunteer hours worked every week. Over two hundred years since our nation’s birth, Americans of every stripe are still working to keep their government accountable.

As you can see, it’s been a great first half of the year for CWN, and with your help the rest of the year can be even better. So please consider making a secure, tax-deductible contribution using the PayPal tool on the right. Also be sure to follow Court Watch NOLA on Facebook for regular court updates. And thank you as always for your friendship and support!

Read the entire Court Watch NOLA Summer Newsletter.

In the News: NOPD, Courthouse Security, Jury Bribery, and Right-Sizing the Courts

Court Watch NOLA has been tracking a lot criminal justice stories in New Orleans this week, including a 30% drop in the murder rate for the first three months of 2014, though the NOPD acknowledged that other violent crimes were up. In bad news for the NOPD, however, a detective was caught writing words in the blood found at a murder scene. And one tourist decided not to wait for the NOPD, turning the tables on and beating up a would-be armed robber.

In court news, an armed assault on a Georgia courthouse reminded us all of the important and life-saving work the security screening deputies perform at the entrance to Tulane and Broad. A couple of prominent cases were also resolved this week: Judge Davillier revoked the probation of Dean Kelly, a former male model, sending him to prison for 8 years; and a defendant charged with trying to bribe jurors plead guilty and received a 13-year sentence for that charge and others. In news about the bench, the D.A. has had disagreements with Judge Derbigny, the Clerk of Court and Judge White this week, and James Gill lamented the slow pace of progress on “right-sizing” the courts.

NOPD in the News This Week

The New Orleans Police Department has dominated local criminal justice news these past few days. The Inspector General recently asked why the NOPD has so many of its officers in offices and so few on patrol, and also accused the NOPD of misclassifying rape incidents. NPR, on the other hand, published a story about how the NOPD’s new body cameras are working and FOX 8 showed how the NOPD is analyzing trends in who is being victimized by crime in New Orleans in order to better target its policing strategies.

Court Watch NOLA has learned about the NOPD’s data collection and analysis efforts related to victims of violent crime, and it is impressive. The NOPD seems to have hired exceptionally qualified people and obtained cutting edge software to assist with this effort.

The question, however, is whether the NOPD has a well-thought-out plan for making practical use of the data. CWN itself collects a great quantity of information about the court system, and is uniquely suited to understand that collecting data is only half the battle. Convincing entrenched system actors – whether they be judges, clerks, or police officers – to act on the data is just as, if not more, important. So kudos to the NOPD for gathering this information, and good luck to it as it tries to turn all of those “1″s and “0″s into a real-life reduction in the local crime rate.

NPR Fines & Fees Series Exposes Criminal Justice Funding Problems in N.O.

Throughout this week, National Public Radio has broadcast stories about how America’s 21st century criminal justice system sometimes resembles an 18th century debtor’s prison. As Court Watch NOLA volunteers know, defendants pleading guilty in New Orleans are frequently assessed hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines and fees that they may not ever be able to repay. When these defendants can’t make a scheduled payment, some choose (wrongly) to not show up for court at all, leading to their rearrest and incarceration, all on the taxpayer dime. On top of this, indigent defendants in Louisiana must also pay to get a public defender, creating a perverse incentive system, as Chief Orleans Public Defender Derwyn Bunton described in one of the NPR stories.

While it may be tempting to blame these problems on Judges because they are the ones imposing fines and fees on poor defendants, the Court often has no choice but to do so, either because they are required to by statute or because the Court relies on this funding to operate. Put simply, no one person or group of people is to blame, and Louisiana does not yet have an answer to this complex problem. But understanding the problem is the first step towards fixing it, and NPR’s series, along with the longtime work of dozens of committed local reformers, is doing good work by raising public awareness of it.

Criminal Justice Leaders Praise CWN, 2013 Report

In April, after fifteen months of hard work by our volunteers, staff, and Board members, Court Watch NOLA published its 2013 Report (Executive Summary)– and we couldn’t be happier with the positive response. Not only did the Report earn unprecedented media coverage, but CWN was gratified that numerous criminal justice leaders praised its findings and heralded Court Watch NOLA’s critical role in the fight to reform our city’s institutions. We wanted to share some of these recent comments to the media with you – our supporters – since none of this would have been possible without your time, contributions, and support over the past few years:

“I want to thank [Court Watch NOLA] for the job they do,” said District Attorney Cannizzaro recently. “They are vigilant in keeping tabs on what’s going on in Criminal Court.”

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Chief Judge Benedict Willard added that the “Court appreciates the hard work provided by the volunteers. Hopefully the program will continue and possibly expand.”

And Robert Jenkins, a prominent private criminal defense attorney, talked about Court Watch NOLA’s impact on the criminal justice system: “I’ve seen a total change from delay, delay, delay…. The point is it’s working much better these days.”

CWN is proud of its work, its history, and its impact, but needs your ongoing support to continue to advocate for reform. So please consider making a secure, tax-deductible contribution through this website, and be sure to follow Court Watch NOLA on Facebook for regular court updates.

Utah Took the Jazz, So Let’s Take Their Court Reforms

Reforming Louisiana courts may seem a daunting task, but if other states can do it, then we can, too. That’s why Utah’s 2014 “State of the Judiciary” speech was so important – it highlighted how courts can become more effective by focusing on efficiency, transparency, accountability, and procedural fairness.

Efficiency

In our 2013 Report, CWN recommended bringing the Clerk of Court’s office into the 21st Century through technology upgrades. Utah recently did this and was therefore able to:

-          reduce its clerk workforce by over 8%;

-          lower costs for postage, paper, file folders, and storage equipment; and

-          free up space for additional courtrooms.

It’s time for Orleans Parish to follow suit. Under effective leadership, technology investments in the Clerk of Court’s office would likely save money in the long run through lower personnel, storage, and supply costs, and maybe even create enough savings and space to give Sections B & L (the tiny closets courtrooms in the attic) proper and secure courtrooms.

Transparency

Another amazing fact from Utah’s recent State of the Judiciary speech: Utah is so confident in the quality of its court system that it allows the media to record and publish court proceedings. Over 100 cases were taped and made public last year, and one two-week trial was broadcast over the Internet in real-time.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, other government business – including legislative and city council meetings – is broadcast, but court proceedings are not. Imagine a truly transparent system where we could observe court from the comfort of our own living rooms!

Accountability

Utah courts are so accountable to the public that an organization like Court Watch NOLA seems unnecessary there. In Utah:

-          every courthouse performs regular self-evaluations based on relevant performance measures and time standards, then posts this information on its website; and

-          every Judge’s performance is regularly assessed by an independent state commission, which publishes this information so the public can use it in judicial elections.

Let’s do the same here in Louisiana. Court Watch NOLA would welcome a system that is so efficient, transparent, and procedurally fair that Court Watch NOLA itself is no longer necessary.

Procedural Fairness

Utah’s investment of time and resources seems to be paying off. Thanks to the judiciary’s focus on efficiency, transparency, accountability, and procedural fairness, Utah citizens are more satisfied with their justice system. According to a recent survey:

-          93% of people surveyed were satisfied with their court experience (amazing when you consider that arguably half of all parties in court on any given day lose);

-          93% understood what happened in their case and what steps they should take next;

-          89% finished court in a reasonable time;

-          90% said the hearing was fair; and

-          96% said they were treated with respect.

Court watchers – what do you think these numbers would be in New Orleans? How can we improve them? And when will Utah change the name of our its NBA team?

Sentencing for Weed Possession in the News this Week

There’s been a lot of discussion about how severely possession of marijuana should be punished in the courts and the media this week. The Louisiana Supreme Court is considering a case out of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in which a man was sentenced to 13 years in prison without possibility of parole for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. Judge Zibilich originally sentenced the man to only five years (see 4/2/12 docket entry), but was then forced to increase the sentence to comply with the mandatory minimums in Louisiana’s multiple bill statute (similar to a “three strikes you’re out” law). Bills seeking to reduce these penalties, meanwhile, have been rejected by the state legislature this month.

While Court Watch NOLA has not taken a position on this issue, we are privy to some of the courthouse scuttlebutt. Criminal justice system actors in favor of lighter penalties often argue that time and resources spent prosecuting these crimes would be better spent on violent felony cases. Prosecutors, on the other hand, often cite the flexibility that tougher sentences and the multiple bill statute give them, so that a violent criminal who may have wriggled out of a prior charge can be put in prison for a long time based on the marijuana possession charge. Based on recent legislative action, it looks like law enforcement is winning this argument for the time being.

Media Buzzing Over CWN’s 2013 Report

The media is buzzing over the release of Court Watch NOLA’s 2013 Report! The Report – Court Watch NOLA’s most detailed yet – celebrated the organization’s 15,000th volunteer courtroom observation, as well as the significant improvements our volunteers observed in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in 2013.

Read the Executive Summary or the full 2013 Report.

Educating the public about the importance of making our criminal courts more efficient, transparent, and procedurally fair is critical to Court Watch NOLA’s mission, so CWN is gratified by the media attention our 2013 Report earned. The Times-Picayune, The New Orleans Advocate, FOX 8 WVUE, and the Mid-City Messenger all covered its release. You can also listen to Angela Hill’s coverage, or watch video footage of CWN’s Executive Director on “The Hot Seat” with Norman Robinson, as well as District Attorney Cannizzaro’s positive remarks about the Report to WWL (at the four minute mark of the linked video).

The release of Court Watch NOLA’s 2013 Report is the culmination of fifteen months of volunteer and staff work, and Court Watch NOLA needs your help to continue this fight for reform. Please consider clicking the button on the right to make a secure, tax-deductible contribution. Also be sure to follow Court Watch NOLA on Facebook for regular court updates.

CWN Releases 2013 Report, Makes 15,000th Volunteer Observation

Court Watch NOLA is proud to release its 2013 Report today. This Report is Court Watch NOLA’s most detailed yet, exploring the state of New Orleans’ Criminal District Court, showcasing the observations of the more than 100 volunteers from all walks of life who watched court for us last year, and making best practices-based recommendations for how to make the criminal justice system more efficient, transparent, and accountable.

Court Watch NOLA volunteers observed significant progress at Tulane and Broad in 2013, seeing fewer and shorter delays than in previous years. The Court also made strides towards greater transparency.  And Court Watch NOLA itself recorded a huge milestone, making - after only six years in existence - our 15,000th volunteer observation! Check out the Report and look for us in the news over the coming days:

Read the Executive Summary

Read the Full Report

Court Watch NOLA could not do this important work without the support of its dedicated volunteers and supporters like you. Please consider making a secure, tax-deductible donation to Court Watch NOLA today through this website or by mailing a contribution to P.O. Box 750633, New Orleans, LA 70175.

Thanks again to all of our volunteers and supporters, and here’s to another 15,000 observations over the next few years!