The judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court pleaded with the the New Orleans City Council on Monday to spare the court’s budget from a proposed 31 percent cut. The budget proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu would cut the city’s contribution to the court from $2.2 million this year to $1.5 million next year.
Chief Judge Camille Buras described it as a “very dire picture” and hinted that the courthouse might be “ground to a halt.”
“I don’t like to sound like an alarmist, but the numbers are here, the numbers are real, the numbers are what they are,” she told the council.
The Operational Budget of Criminal Court
The Criminal Court budget took a hit early last year when prosecution of misdemeanors (and the resulting fines and court costs they generate) were shifted from criminal to municipal court. Misdemeanor fines and court costs had generated about $1.5 million for the court.
That loss of money is real, and given the current operating needs of the Criminal Court, the City Council should find a way to make up the shortfall – in the short term. Otherwise, it means cuts to programs the court funds that are beneficial to criminal defendants and the city, like drug and mental health courts – the programs that truly help people, instead of just convicting them of crimes and locking them up.
But the core of the budget crisis stems from the operational expenses of the court as a whole. In 2011 the court handled more than 300 jury trials, three times more than any courthouse in the state. The overall rate of crime has remained rather steady, yet prosecutions for violent charges and felonies have doubled in the last several years.
The Need for Alternatives to Prosecution
Going forward, the focus of the criminal justice system as a whole should be to decrease the operational budget of the criminal court by decreasing the number of prosecutions and jury trials, and thus decreasing the operational needs of the court (staff, judges, etc.). There are alternatives to prosecution that are cheaper and proven to be more effective.
Ironically it’s the more cost effective programs like these that are going to be the first to be cut when money gets tight. The opposite should be true. We should be increasing funding, and admitting more folks into programs that offer alternatives to prosecution – pre-trial diversion, drug courts, mental health courts.
I recently wrote about a cost-benefit approach to incarceration. Perhaps a similar cost-benefit approach to prosecution should be explored in the New Orleans Criminal Court. Sure the system is fractured and outdated, and needs operational improvements. But the cost savings of these fixes is marginal.
What needs to happen at Tulane and Broad is a re-think of how the limited resources are best allocated to produce a result that helps keep the public safe, and helps educate and rehabilitate young people away from a life of crime. 300 jury trials, a record number of felony prosecutions, and the resulting bloated criminal court budget surely doesn’t do that.