After months with an electronic monitor strapped to his ankle, Aaron Jones was ready to leave the criminal justice system when he walked into Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Paul Bonin’s courtroom last May. Jones pleaded guilty to a felony and was given a sentence of three years of probation. There was a catch: Bonin told Jones to pay off the $600 he owed to the private company that operated the monitor before he could have the device removed. “What if I don’t have the money?” Jones remembers thinking. Jones said his father, a retiree, scrounged up the cash. The idea of a judge acting as bill collector did not sit well with him, The Advocate reports
That interaction was part of a larger pattern in which Bonin steered defendants to a campaign contributor’s ankle-monitor company and threatened them when they did not pay its fees, says the nonprofit judicial monitoring group CourtWatch NOLA. Bonin said he sees the monitors as a critical tool in a push to reduce the inmate population at the New Orleans jail. He acknowledged erring in his comments to Jones, but he offered a simple explanation for why he made referrals to that company: He trusted it to keep track of defendants. Bonin said his actions did not cross any ethical lines, but CourtWatch NOLA argues that he ran afoul of judicial canons. Either way, the group’s report may reopen a debate over the role of ankle monitors in New Orleans and how to pay for them. The monitors are ordered by judges as part of defendants’ bail, in lieu of keeping suspects locked up in jail awaiting trial. Defendants generally must pay a $100 installation fee and monitoring fees of $10 a day or more.