Court Watch NOLA: Judge Harry Cantrell violates defendants’ rights, but system’s ‘moving in right direction’

NEW ORLEANS - Court Watch NOLA has been closely monitoring the Orleans Parish Court System for a decade, and in this year's report, they said we are moving in the right direction, but work still needs to be done.

"Court Watch NOLA continues to demand accountability, transparency, and fairness in ensuring the Orleans Magistrate Court and the public officials within the courthouse are answerable to the people of Orleans Parish," Court Watch NOLA Executive Director Simone Levine said.

The group did commend judges and Commissioner Jonathan Freeman, saying they're making smarter pre-trial decisions.

They praised the city's "Pre-trial Services" program, which helps judges determine a defendant's risk level. Before the program, judges were frequently making decisions based on just the criminal allegations, and when judges do that, dangerous individuals are released, and people 
who are not a danger, 
and would likely return to court, 
are incarcerated.

Court Watch Nola says the new mayor needs to keep the program in place, and the state supreme court needs to continue strictly supervising it.

"From May 2016 to May 2017, there were three times the number of low risk defendants as high risk defendants who were seen in Orleans Parish Magistrate Court. Court Watch NOLA has found that in Orleans Parish we are increasingly making educated​ and better informed pre-trial release decisions. ​Generally, ​the higher the risk assessment, the more often a defendant received a higher bail amount; the lower the risk assessment, the more often the defendant received a lower bail amount or was released on his or her own recognizance. However, the relationship was not absolute. Seventeen percent of those with low risk scores still had a bail greater than $10,000 and 22 percent of defendants with high risk scores had a bail of $5,000 and lower," said Levine.

They also raised questions about how commissioners are chosen. They're appointed judges, not elected, and they decide bail and bond for defendants. The big concern was that there are no rules when it comes to how they're chosen, especially compared to federal judges, who have to follow thick rule books.

Court Watch NOLA recommends that Criminal District Court judges change the way they appoint the commissioners, who are paid $70,000 to determine bail and bond and sign arrest and search warrants on a part-time basis.

"Currently, commissioners are appointed by the Criminal District Judges in a closed-door meeting with no written rules or procedures. There are no rules protecting the commissioner selection process from conflicts of interest, although the judges responsible for commissioner appointment must in most cases raise over ​$​150,000 in campaign funds in order to be elected themselves. Considering the challenging work of balancing public safety and individual liberty, it is important that commissioner candidates be chosen from the most qualified applicants, unaffected by conflicts of interest or political interests," said Levine.

Court Watch NOLA claims that Judge Harry Cantrell violated defendants' constitutional right to counsel multiple times. Cantrell reportedly set bail and bond when a defendant had no attorney or only allowing a defendant and attorney to speak for a couple minutes. Court Watch Nola says it's important that these court officials are held accountable.

Court Watch NOLA was founded in 2007 by the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, Common Good, and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans as a grassroots volunteer effort to bring greater transparency and efficiency to our criminal courts. Since then, CWN has recruited, trained, and supported thousands of volunteers in observing and reporting on how our judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and other public servants are doing their jobs professionally, transparently, and procedurally fair. CWN volunteers track over 1,000 felony cases, and their daily and visible presence in the courtroom helps identify systemic problems while sending the message that our community cares about making the courts more accountable and just.