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Independent Study Slams New Orleans Judicial System

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By Mason Harrison
Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly

A sobering independent study commissioned by local officials that was released this month pans the New Orleans justice system as a disparate array of political fiefdoms that are charged with working together but often fail to do so in a manner that produces trackable results; is hobbled by outdated technology; and that has cost city taxpayers close to $300 million in a recent probe of the city’s crime-fighting budget.

The Philadelphia-based PFM Group produced the 69-page report that puts the functions of the many city agencies that constitute the local criminal justice system under a microscope, an apparatus the report’s authors call “highly fragmented” and a “criminal justice nonsystem” in reference to the agencies’ inability to coordinate functions.

The report calls for better use of the city’s scarce financial resources in fighting crime, improved use of criminal data, better coordination among city agencies and says City Hall “must lead” the other areas of the local criminal justice system in order to streamline their operations and achieve the other recommendations.

Funding for crime prevention measures also came under scrutiny in the study, with the report labeling the city’s method of allowing individual departments, like the sheriff’s office and others, to oversee their own budgets a “rare” feature among municipalities, with most creating a more centralized process for funding the justice system.

“Overall,” the report contends, “we want to have a community where both civil rights and civil order are maintained. Meeting these twin goals – civil rights and civil order – is made more complicated by the fragmented nature of the criminal justice system. … The fragmentation in authority is matched by a fragmented process of funding – including funds from the city, state and federal governments, as well as outside grants and a signification amount of funding derived through fees and fines collected from defendants.”

In 2010, the study estimates that the local criminal justice system functioned at a cost of $300 million, with hard-to-assess results because “data on the actual operation of the criminal justice system is scarce and often unreliable.”

“We sought data from multiple agencies across the criminal justice system,” the authors of the report note, adding, “Virtually every agency provided at least a partial response to our data requests. But, in many cases, different agencies responded by indicating that they did not have the data requested. Still, in other cases, there were instances where leaders of different agencies indicated that the data might be available but was likely unreliable.”

The unreliability of data is due, in part, the study contends, to the system’s outdated method for storing and transmitting information. “[T]he lack of data is due to gaps in technology. A fair amount of the operations of the criminal justice system remain based on hand-written summonses and notes. In many cases, data is largely used for individual case management – and it is either difficult or impossible to access that individual case data and use it for aggregate analysis.”

But what data is available is not often used: “With the exception of the Police Department, there is no sign that any of the other components of the criminal justice system regularly review data to measure or manage performance.”

Despite the report’s scathing assessment of the city’s crime-fighting apparatus, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office welcomed the information outlined in the study. Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the report contained “good information to have as we and our partners continue our historic efforts to reform and improve all aspects of the New Orleans Criminal Justice System. It will be particularly helpful to our administration and the City Council as we move through the budget process these next few months.”

The full report, entitled “Overview of the Criminal Justice System, its Costs and the Case for Better Coordination,” is available at www.nola.gov.

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