The Mess at Municipal Court

Charles Maldonado on an overtaxed court system facing more cases — and budget cuts — in 2012


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As the New Orleans City Council wraps up its 2012 budget hearings in anticipation of the Dec. 1 budget-adoption deadline, Municipal Court hardly looms as an obvious cause for major concern. The court's 2011 city budget allocation, at $2.8 million, represents barely one-half of 1 percent of New Orleans' $488 million general fund operating budget.

But a closer look at the workload of Municipal Court raises several red flags.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu's proposed budget raises overall general fund expenditures to $494 million. Designed with public safety in mind, Landrieu says, the spending plan as submitted increases police and fire budgets by $10 million and $8 million, respectively. It also adds about $4 million to the New Orleans Recreation Department.

To offset those increases, the administration has proposed 5 percent to 10 percent cuts in nearly every other city agency. Some are looking at even deeper cuts. The Department of Public Works, which has $22 million this year, goes down 22 percent to $18 million in 2012 under Landrieu's plan.

In such a difficult, contentious budget season, $300,000 in cuts for Municipal Court may look insignificant — unless you're Chief Judge Paul Sens. If the proposed cuts go through, Sens tells Gambit, the court will have to fire 12 people — more than 25 percent of its current staff of 46 — even as the court is being forced to handle a significantly heavier caseload.

"And we're being asked to do it not with more resources, but less," Sens says.

Sens believes the budget plan exposes a larger problem with the justice system in New Orleans. He describes that system as a "fractured zero-sum game" in which agencies are forced to compete for a piece of an ever-dwindling pie, with little coordination and no strategy for tackling underlying public safety problems.

"There's no real system," he says. "There's never been any coordination between these entities."

Last year saw a total of 42,896 criminal charges filed in New Orleans courts as a result of local police activity. Of those, more than 30,000 were filed in Municipal Court. Those 30,000-plus cases represent 71 percent of all cases brought by NOPD last year. According to Sens, Municipal Court's caseload is likely to increase even more in 2012 — because District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro soon will begin prosecuting all stand-alone state misdemeanor cases in Municipal Court. A stand-alone misdemeanor case is one in which a suspect has not also been charged with a felony.

Cannizzaro already had started sending some misdemeanors to Municipal Court in 2010, but now he plans to transfer all such cases there — including domestic violence cases. In theory, moving misdemeanors to Municipal Court will allow the DA and his staff to focus on complex felony cases. But that hasn't seemed to have happened so far. A report released this month by the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) shows that state felony dismissals have actually increased in the first half of 2011, to 20 percent of all accepted cases — up from 14 percent in 2010 and 11 percent in 2009.

Christopher Bowman, communications director for the District Attorney's Office, says that one number fails to tell the whole story. First, he says, the MCC report doesn't account for dismissals that were later refiled and brought to trial — which, he adds, many are.

Second, the conviction rate for violent felonies is steady. Closed felonies as a whole spiked to 3,337 in the second half of 2010. Of those, 376, or 11 percent, were convictions for violent crimes. In the first half of this year, the court closed 2,084 felonies. Of those, 281 were violent crime convictions, a 13 percent rate.

Bowman adds that increased focus on felonies wasn't the only reason for the transfer.

"We recognize that misdemeanors were languishing for months in state court. Municipal Court judges move the cases through more efficiently. ... This is about increasing efficiencies everywhere," Bowman says. "It deserves notice and recognition that the judges of Municipal Court have had their workload drastically increased in the past 12 months ... They are doing yeoman's work there."

Sens predicts Municipal Court soon will be trying 40 percent of the state's total docket in Orleans Parish — an astronomical number in light of the fact that Municipal Court has only four judges, compared to the 12 (plus one magistrate) at Criminal District Court.

That larger caseload will include misdemeanor domestic violence cases, which used to be among Municipal Court's responsibilities — until 2009, when Cannizzaro led an effort to try those cases in Criminal District Court. Sens says the transfer of domestic violence cases to Criminal Court has been a failure. He notes that the state domestic violence statute is less comprehensive and less effective than the city ordinance in New Orleans. State law defines "domestic violence" narrowly, limiting its application to household violence against a child, or an adult of the opposite sex. The city code has a broader definition, covering gay and lesbian couples, stalkers, and violence against parents by children.

Criminal Court has "dismantled" the comprehensive resources for combating domestic violence that the Municipal Court judges had in place before the transfer. Now, Sens says, domestic violence cases (along with many other misdemeanor cases) will be coming back to Municipal Court — but without the programs that enabled that court to handle them effectively.

For example, Sens says, when Municipal Court handled all domestic violence cases, the judges could refer some offenders to therapist Lucille Perry, its domestic violence program coordinator, for treatment to help prevent recidivism. That therapist no longer is there — because the position no longer is funded, Sens says. He adds that the state's misdemeanor backlog is choking Municipal Court staff, some of whom have to report to work at 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the daunting dockets they face every day.

"Sometimes it looks like organized chaos," Sens says.

A visit to Municipal Court bears out that description. A visit to Criminal Court also reveals a sharp contrast between the two courts and their dockets.

Nov. 10, 9:30 a.m.

Judge Paul Sens' Courtroom

New Orleans Municipal Court

727 S. Broad St.

Sens' courtroom, on the main floor of the building Municipal Court shares with New Orleans Traffic Court, is too busy for anything but perfunctory decorum. Court has been in session for nearly 90 minutes, and the crowd hasn't begun to thin out. In a special cordoned section to Sens' left, approximately 70 people in street clothes gather in the main seating area, along with 15 others in orange Orleans Parish Prison jumpsuits and shackles.

The space itself could be a DMV office. Its rows of wooden pews are placed on top of worn, gray carpeting, not polished marble. It has wood-paneled, not actual wood walls, covered in plastic "no talking" and "no cellphones" signs. In the back of the room, there's a glass-walled office supply and copying room. A New Orleans Police Department officer stands between that and the crowd and does his best to keep the noise down in the style of a teacher on lunchroom duty. "I'm going to have to split y'all up," he says to two women who've been talking. A few minutes later, he does exactly that, telling them to sit wherever they want, as long as it's not next to one another.

When trials or hearings aren't in progress, Sens seems to be doing 10 things at once. He speaks quietly to at least one lawyer and two or three court clerks at a time, as well as someone else via cellphone.

To Sens' right, people are called up by another court clerk five or 10 at a time for a brief conference. As Sens later explains, these people are here to pay or explain why they can't pay the state bail bond fee.

"What time is it?" asks one woman sitting in a pew near the back of the room. A man behind her points to a clock on the wall. It's 10:35. She sighs. "I've been here three hours," she says.

Nov. 14, 10:30 a.m.

Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen's Courtroom

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court

2700 Tulane Ave.

A few days later, in the Magistrate Court of Criminal District Court on Tulane Avenue, court doesn't begin until nearly 10:30 a.m. — 30 minutes late — when Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen enters. Hansen's courtroom — softly lit and tastefully appointed — is only equipped to hold 49 people, according to a sign on its outer door. There are just 16 here, though: four defendants and 12 witnesses and family members.

Hansen gets through most of his docket by 10:45 a.m. Then two more people arrive: A man who looks to be in his late 20s, the defendant in Hansen's lone trial today, is accompanied by a woman about the same age. The case is a domestic battery charge dating from 2009.

Prosecutors from the DA's office spend about 15 minutes preparing before Hansen becomes annoyed. "We're waiting on nothing," Hansen says. "Are we finally ready to start this trial once and for all?"

In a trial that ends the same day, Hansen will find the man not guilty and lift his ex-girlfriend's protective order from the 2-year-old incident.

During the Nov. 1 council budget hearing, Sens made an impassioned plea not to cut Municipal Court's budget allocation. Reading from a 17-page statement, Sens said the cuts would make it impossible for the court's staff to "effectively and constitutionally operate our court."

The court's four judges already handle the vast majority of criminal filings in New Orleans, yet the court receives the smallest funding allocation, Sens told the council. Last year, Juvenile Court received $3.2 million and accepted 1,545 cases (or $2,094 per case). The combined city allocations for the Criminal District Court and its Clerk's Office was $6.4 million — for 9,370 cases, or $681 per case. That doesn't even count the court's judicial salaries, at $136,000 each, paid for by the state. But Municipal Court, on the other hand, received only $1.7 million last year from the city and accepted more than 30,000 cases — less than $58 per case.

Then again, funding worked differently last year.

Until this year, Municipal Court was more or less self-funded. Under a longstanding agreement between the city and Municipal Court, the court retained all fees it collected through the year — totaling $1.2 million in 2010. But as the City's Office of Inspector General noted in a 2010 report, that funding scheme was illegal. State and city laws demand that the court remit all fees to the city. The city keeps all but those funds generated from $15 court cost fees for convictions.

Those $15 court cost fees, which Sens says typically total about $500,000 per year, are put into the court's Judicial Expense Fund and are used to supplement operational costs. Any leftovers are split evenly between the court and the city.

The court and the city now comply with state budget laws, and this year the city began funding the court's personnel costs. Though state law requires the city to pay for both personnel and operations, Sens says, the $2.8 million the court received this year only covered personnel. Operational costs, about $300,000 — which include a free car for each judge — were covered by the Judicial Expense Fund.

The proposed cut in Municipal Court's allocation from the city — from $2.8 million this year to just over $2.5 million in 2012 — fails to fund the court's current personnel costs, which would be $2.9 million next year after a $100,000 increase in medical insurance for court staff. It also fails to pay the court's operating costs, despite the fact that state law requires such costs to be covered. The city has never paid for the court's operating costs, in fact.

Those cuts have led Sens to predict that the court may have to lay off a quarter of its staff, even in the face of a significantly larger caseload.

In his City Council budget hearing, Sens, as chief judge for Municipal Court, asked for an increased budget of $3.6 million to cover staff and handle the huge influx of new state misdemeanor cases.

Gambit contacted City Council President Jackie Clarkson, who during Sens' hearing expressed concern for Municipal Court's budget woes — even asking City Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin and Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter what could be done to provide immediate additional resources to the court. But Clarkson, through spokesperson Summer Johnson, declined to comment on ongoing budget talks.

Sens may have appreciated Clarkson's sentiment at the time, but he wonders if the issue remains on councilmembers' minds. The council has until Dec. 1 to adopt a 2012 budget.

"We're trying to expose this," the judge says. "You go through this 10-minute dog-and-pony show at council, and then basically it's over."


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