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by Orissa Arend

I’m a new Court Watch volunteer. I’ve only been to court once in my new capacity and that was to Orleans Parish Criminal Court where felony cases are heard. An experienced Court Watcher, Julia Cass, accompanied me on that occasion because there is so much that can be baffling about the system to a novice like me. (See my last Court Watch NOLA column.)

Before I observe in Magistrate Court I want to get up to speed on some of the terms and issues, so I am studying the Court Watch NOLA report on the State of Magistrate Court. Magistrate Court is where pretrial release and bail are initially determined for all state felony and misdemeanor cases.  Bail is cash or a piece of property that has cash value paid in return for a defendant’s promise to appear for scheduled court appearances. Bond is the payment of a percentage of a defendant’s full bail amount to a bondsman or surety who, in turn, guarantees that the defendant will appear for scheduled court appearances. If the defendant is incarcerated when bail bond is posted, the defendant is released. Another outcome is that the defendant can be released on his/her own recognizance (ROR), by signing something that says he/she promises to return to court.

A case in point: Rodneka S., who I’ve mentioned in my previous Court Watch columns, was arrested on April 23 of 2017 as she rescued a baby from the arms of a woman who, according to Rodneka, was being assaulted by a police officer. Rodneka sat in a holding room at Orleans Parish Prison until midnight and then was taken to a cell where she spent three days. The jail was on lock-down. She needed her anxiety meds. No one answered the call button, so she wrote her plea on the window in soap. No one answered that either.

On April 24, she went into Magistrate Court for her bail bond hearing. That was the first she heard of her charges: resisting arrest and battery on an officer. She couldn’t believe they were talking about her. She hadn’t eaten for 20 hours and was having a panic attack, but the guard told her that if he took her out of court, she’d have to come back another day to have her bail set. “The chain on my ankles hurt so bad,” she remembers. But she pushed through it. Bail was set at $5000. Her family paid $800 to get her out. She was released on April 25, 2017. Rodneka’s trial date is April 17, almost a year after her arrest. Any of us can go to Judge Burras’ court, section H, that day at 9 a.m. to observe.

It’s been a hard year for Rodneka. She had to go on bed rest at the beginning of her pregnancy a few months ago. We were afraid the stress would cause her to lose the baby. But at 16 weeks she seems to be in the clear and she and her husband have just found out that the baby will be a “warrior princess.”

Magistrate Court is important because it determines who sits in jail, who goes free until trial, and at what cost to the defendants, their families and to public safety. While we don’t want to squander our precious tax dollars to lock up people who pose no real threat to society, we also don’t want dangerous people running free.

Try this quiz: True or false? A blanket policy, refusing to set bonds below a certain amount for all defendants, is a good way to go because it is efficient.

FALSE. First of all it’s illegal and unconstitutional under both Louisiana law and the U. S. Constitution. Both hold that the conditions of bail be an individualized decision examining the special circumstances of each defendant. Can he/she meet the financial conditions? Is she/he a flight risk?

True or false? What a person is charged with should be the biggest consideration in determining a risk score.

FALSE. Age and criminal history are more important as determinants of whether the defendant is a risk for failure to return to court for future court dates.

True or false? All defendants should be required to comply with extensive pretrial supervision requirements.

FALSE. Low and moderate risk defendants who are required to come to court for regular check-ins and jump through other hoops (program requirements) are statistically MORE likely to be re-arrested and LESS likely to return to court than if they were released on their own recognizance. The Court Watch report notes that “It is inefficient and ineffective to overly concentrate pretrial services supervision on low-risk offenders. Pretrial supervision should not be recommended where the magistrate judge or commissioner requires bail and the defendant is incapable of paying the bail.” In May of 2017, a pilot project to increase the release of pretrial, low-risk defendants was implemented. Bravo to the courts and judges for trying this new approach.

Multiple choice: Which is more effective in getting the defendant to return for his/her court date and ensuring he or she is not rearrested? A. regular drug testing; OR: B. reminders about the date from the pretrial services staff. The answer is B according to national studies.

That’s it for the pop quiz. Now for the good news: New Orleans is moving toward a stronger, evidence-based pretrial system. It’s called the Pretrial Services Program and it began in 2012. It assigns risk scores to help the Magistrate Court determine release outcomes. Here is the Court Watch Report recommendation: “The City of New Orleans should continue to financially support the Pretrial Services Program operated by the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. While the program is still developing, it needs strong and careful supervision from the Louisiana State Supreme Court. . . “

Unless we are research and data-driven in our approach to public safety when people are accused of a crime, we fall into the real risk of making decisions tainted with wealth-based discrimination. We’ve seen people handled differently if they can hire a lawyer and post bail bond. We have to check ourselves to see whether a knee-jerk or emotional response is just plain wrong. This is where Court Watch can help with its informed and objective eyes and the data it collects.   

To sign up for Court Watch contact Trezell Ragas at 504-715-0519 or email her at tragas@courtwatchnola.org.

Orissa Arend is a Court Watch volunteer, mediator and psychotherapist, member of Justice and Beyond, and author of Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at arendsaxer@bellsouth.net

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