Are low bonds allowing dangerous criminals easy outs? Crime watchdog addresses St. John business community

Published 12:14 am Saturday, January 12, 2019

LAPLACE — Rafael Goyeneche has witnessed a troubling trend in New Orleans that allows more repeat criminal offenders to return to the streets and migrate to surrounding areas, including the River Parishes.

Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission for the past 20 years, addressed the St. John the Baptist Parish Business Association during a Wednesday night meeting at Petra Restaurant & Lounge in LaPlace.

According to Goyeneche, New Orleans officials are combating high prison populations by setting lower bonds for release, sometimes as alarmingly low as $1, without giving inmates the necessary resources to integrate back into the public.

Complicating matters further are activist groups who raise money to pay bonds up to $5,000, allowing dealers and domestic violence offenders a quick route out of prison.

Goyeneche said the activists, who go by names such as “The Stealth Fund,” “The Freedom Fund” and “The Bond Angels,” have hearts in the right place. However, he said continuous offenders who are released threaten the safety of communities in Orleans Parish and beyond.

Criminal populations have become more migratory since Hurricane Katrina, Goyeneche said.

“Some of the people released from New Orleans will find their way into your neighborhoods,” Goyeneche said. “As it starts to roll out to other parishes, I want you to be aware. This is not just an Orleans Parish movement. They have plans to bring this to Baton Rouge and Shreveport. As they get it into bigger areas, there will be a ground swell to try and change state laws.”

St. John Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre said Goyeneche’s presentation gave him “heartache” because speedy release of arrested criminals is a struggle his staff is all too familiar with.

“Some of these guys are dangerous, you fight with them, they don’t come quietly, and the next thing you know, we see them on the street,” Tregre said.

While bond is predetermined for some offenses, Tregre said it is primarily up to local judges and out of local police officers’ hands.

Social media readers expressed dissatisfaction with bonds following L’OBSERVATEUR’s recent reporting on two Reserve residents arrested during a traffic stop for hiding crack, heroin and marijuana in a diaper bag with three children nearby.

“Arrested more than 20 times & gets a measly bond of $156,500,” one reader commented. “Pitiful! Why was he out on the streets at all?”

Another said it’s no wonder why police are non-stop, and that judges who set lower bonds “are not helping their community.”

However, the outlook isn’t completely grim.

Tregre said his department is “small but powerful,” strengthened through cooperation with U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser.

Tregre said Strasser headed a case that sentenced two St. John Parish offenders to life in prison, and he recently adopted a case that connected more than 20 St. John residents to a frenzy of fraudulent prescriptions in 2018.

“This is the best working relationship we’ve had with the state police and the federal agencies in my 30 years in law enforcement,” Tregre said.

Since 2014, SJSO has made inmate rehabilitation a priority through the Opportunity Now re-entry program.

Tregre said the three-month course prepares inmates to re-enter society through work readiness and life skills training.

Job placement and case management services are mandated aspects of the program.

The most recent Opportunity Now program concluded Dec. 18 with 12 graduates.

Crime rates have fallen in St. John Parish for four consecutive years, according to Tregre, who said 2018 statistics would be released soon.