NEW ORLEANS -- Akein Scott is a household name in New Orleans for being the accused gunman in Mother’s Day second-line shooting that left 19 people wounded. Scott also is known in courthouse circles for his “low-risk” rating of a 3 out of a possible 24 following his arrest on gun possession and heroin charges months before the brazen attack.
The score was Scott’s pre-trial risk assessment conducted by the Vera Institute, a non-profit agency that was paid $484,000 by the city last year to help judges determine which arrestees are a good bet for being released on a low or free bond.
In the city’s 2014 budget, Vera has been penciled in for a 20 percent increase to $584,000 for its services, sharpening a fierce debate on whether Vera’s services represent ground-breaking reform or a waste of scarce money in a cash-strapped criminal justice system.
Throughout the city council budget hearings over the past two weeks, Vera’s pre-trial screening program has been alternately panned and praised. At one committee hearing that focused on the program, Vera was touted as a success by representatives of the mayor, district attorney, public defender and the chair of the committee, Council member Susan Guidry.Despite the powerful roster of supporters, a growing number of detractors are wondering if the city is getting its money’s worth.
A waste of money?
Defense attorney Robert Hjortsberg has questioned the program since it was launched in April 2012.
“I personally think it’s a complete waste of money,” Hjortsberg said. “They (Vera) are asking the city to commit more than half a million dollars to a program to do things that the judges already getting paid to do, and can easily do, and can do more effectively than what they’re doing. It’s junk science.”
Vera comes up with its risk assessment scores by checking criminal justice records and interviewing freshly arrested suspects to answer 12 questions about a defendant’s criminal and personal background. But critics say the information contained in 10 of Vera’s questions matches what is already provided to the court at first appearance bail hearing.
(See the Vera Institute's presentation given to the City Council. -- Powerpoint needed)
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the Vera Institute may be well-meaning, but its pre-trial assessment doesn’t add anything new to the system.
“Vera is basically duplicating a process that’s been in place for more than 30 years,” Goyeneche said. “We’re still paying the district attorney’s office and public defender’s office to go to court to provide the very same information. To put half a million dollars into a program that is not providing any additional benefit at a time when the criminal justice system is scrounging in the sofa cushions for extra money is counterproductive.”
Aside from the 10 questions available through court records – such as current and former charges, probation or parole status, prior convictions and failures to appear in court – two Vera assessment questions are answered directly by the defendant.
Council committee hearing. That’s based on a reduced jail population since the Vera program began.
Critics say even the answer to those basic questions – employment and residence status – aren’t reliable coming from the mouth of a criminal suspect.
Akein Scott, for example, told Vera he was a full-time student at Talladega College in Alabama. But a records show that the only paper trail Scott left behind in Alabama was a marijuana arrest.
“What can they (Vera) do that the court cannot do? They couldn’t even find Akein Scott’s arrest in Alabama,” said Matt Dennis, owner of several local bail bond companies.
Dennis has led the bail bond industry into an open campaign against Vera, posting a series of YouTube videos critical of the program. Many of the videos focus on the low risk rating given to Akein Scott.
Dennis took the case a step further and projected what the Vera assessment would be on Scott based on the facts after the Mother’s Day shooting. Even facing 19 counts of attempted first-degree murder, Scott came out as a “moderate” risk with a score of seven, according to Dennis.
“You tell me that Akein Scott before the mother’s day shooting is a three with the charges he had, I would think about ignoring you,” Scott said. “If you tell me he’s a seven after shooting 19 people, I would definitely ignore you.”
The Vera Institute is quick to take issue with the Akein Scott criticism. Director Jon Wool points out that, despite Scott’s low risk rating, the assessment also included a warning because of Scott’s gun charge.
And, in fact, a magistrate commissioner set Scott’s bond at $35,000, keeping him behind bars for several months until the bond was lowered to $15,000, which he covered by paying for a commercial bail bond.
Wool says that Vera New Orleans has been unfairly criticized over the Scott case simply because his case is the only one in which the confidential risk assessment has been made public, presumably by somebody leaking the document.
Wool said that Vera’s push for low or free bonds for non-violent first-offenders has contributed to a lower jail population and significant cost savings for the city.
“The mayor’s office has said that roughly $2 million was saved,” Wool said. “That’s the kind of investment the city needs to make. It gets us within shooing distance of a jail we can afford, especially with the (Orleans Parish Prison) consent decree about to take effect.”
The jail population numbers themselves give a mixed picture.
In the first year Vera provided risk assessments, the pre-trial inmate count at Orleans Parish Prison dropped by about 300. But in the following six months, that population bounced back by about 200, making it difficult to determine what effect Vera is having, if any.
Despite the rocky path to acceptance in New Orleans, Wool, along with Vera co-director Ginny Lee, say that pre-trial release programs are common – and valuable – in big cities throughout the U.S.
“We need to find every good practice across the country that has proven effective in reducing the jail population across the country,” Wool said. “And pre-trial services are the fundamental tool for doing so.”
Lee, who arrived in New Orleans from Kentucky two months ago, said she has been taken aback by the resistance to the program. In Kentucky, a statewide pre-trial services program is embedded into the justice system.
“It’s been eye-opening to walk into such a heated debate,” Lee said. “I think I come from a background where pre-trial services is accepted as a regular and important part of the criminal justice system.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to acceptance of Vera is resistance from the program’s primary customers: the judges of criminal and municipal court. Both courts have turned a cold shoulder to the program.
Chief Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, testifying at the City Council budget hearings, said Vera doesn’t add anything to the system.
“The work that the Vera Institute does, I’m not saying it’s not good work again, but it’s duplicative. The information provided by Vera pre-trial services is the same information that has always been provided to us.”
At the Criminal Court budget hearing, Judge Ben Willard testified, “I don’t need a third party giving me information.”
Lee concedes that a lack of acceptance by the judges has put Vera’s pre-trial services program at a crossroads.
“I think the problem is that maybe the judges ought to be more inclined to use it,” Lee said. “I think the court expressed buy-in initially, and it’s frustrating that they’re not as supportive as they were.”
Despite the judicial resistance, Lee and Wool said they are committed to working with the judges to tweak the program to better fit their needs.
"We’re looking at working with the judges to maybe reformat the report so that information they think might be more helpful than other information is on the front and easier to use," Lee said.
But Instead of sitting at the table with Vera, the cash-strapped criminal court has lobbied against Vera at closed-door meetings with city officials, pushing to take over the program. Willard went public with those sentiments in front of the council, suggesting the outright elimination of Vera.
“The best program, which is run in the state of Kentucky, is run by the judiciary,” Willard said. “If you want to save money, then let’s eliminate some bureaucracy.”
More analysis needed
Some neutral observers, including members of the City Council, have asked for a more in-depth analysis of what Vera has provided to the city so far. But an objective measure is impossible because the Vera reports remain confidential.
“Common sense would dictate that it’s time to see what the city is getting for its money,” Goyeneche said. “It’s baffling to have a non-profit group working for the city, but their reports aren’t put in the public record. There’s no paperwork to determine how effective it is.”
Vera, for one, says it would welcome making the documents public, but that’s a step that the courts have been unwilling to take.
“Would it be better if the risk assessments were made public?” Wool asked. “Yes, it certainly would. And we’ve advocated for that from the outset.”