ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB News Channel 5) Therapy dogs serve a variety of purposes, and one is making a difference in Central Louisiana. News Channel Five's Brittany Bedi met a dog on a special mission to help others. Bolles is a service dog who serves at the Grant Parish courthouse. He comforts victims and witnesses as they prepare to testify in court.
"Whenever kids come into our office to prepare for court, we let them work with the dog, to put them at ease," said District Attorney Jay Lemoine. "We take them in and show them the courtroom, so they'll know where they'll be, where they'll sit, what it'll be like if they have to testify, and he accompanies them all through that."
"We take Bolles down there, it's a videotaped and audiotaped interview, we will work with the child ahead of time, they have a room set up with toys to allow the child to play and try to get comfortable and relax," Lemoine said. "So Bolles will come in and do as much or as little with the child as they want to."
"He'll do some tricks to entertain them, they pet him, some lay on top of him and pull his ears or take him for a walk around the building to put them at ease."
Bolles was the first courthouse dog in Louisiana. Those who work with him say his interaction helps play a vital role in the judicial process.
"I've seen a marked improvement in our interviews with these children," said Jody Bullock, Grant Parish Sheriff's Office Chief of Detectives. "We get better interviews, they're more comfortable, and it's a big asset."
Bolles is making fast friends with people of all ages.
"Bolles is one of the family, he really is," Bullock said. "I love Bolles, everybody loves Bolles. He's become a fixture here."
Bolles arrived at the Grant Parish courthouse in 2012, and so far, his work has been considered a great success.
Before gamblers can collect their winnings, if more than $1,200, casinos first must fill out paperwork and check a database for back child support. The casinos subtract the arrears from the winnings and send the money to the state Department of Children and Family Services.
Through June, casinos intercepted for the state $2.05 million from 1,526 “non-custodial” parents who hadn’t kept up with their child support obligations, the agency reported Tuesday. The single largest collection to date came from the Boomtown Belle, of Harvey, in June totaling $23,465.
“Every single dollar paid goes to the family,” Lindsey deBlieux, DCFS spokeswoman, said Tuesday. The administrative costs are covered by state and federal funds.
But it’s a drop in the bucket from the $1.4 billion total arrears as of July, she said.
August is national Child Support Awareness month. Research has shown that child support collections significantly reduce the federal, state and local costs of providing cash assistance to single parent families, according to a DCFS news release.
The program, which began in September 2011, collects child support arrears from casino winnings totaling more than $1,200 at 19 state-licensed casinos. It is the product of legislation by then state Sen. Nick Gautreaux, now a lobbyist from Meaux. Other states with similar laws include Colorado, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio and West Virginia.
Failure to pay court-ordered child support also can result in liens against the non-payor’s property, seizure of assets, suspension of driver’s, business, professional, hunting or fishing licenses, interception of state and federal tax returns, passport denial and contempt of court charges, among other enforcement actions.
“Each collection made, large or small, proves that this program is an essential tool for collecting what is owed to Louisiana’s children,” said DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier in a news release.
In an unusual partnership, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced plans Tuesday to start a new conviction integrity unit in his office to be run with the Innocence Project, a legal defense group that investigates wrongful convictions.
In a city that has seen several decades-old murder and rape convictions overturned in recent years, Cannizzaro said the initiative would underscore his dedication to fairness for both victims and defendants. He did not describe the proposal in detail, which he said has been six months in the making. Funding remains in the works, he said.
"There is nothing more detrimental to the reputation and health of a criminal justice system than intentional misconduct by law enforcement agencies," Cannizzaro said in his annual "State of the Criminal Justice System" address at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward.
The speech came the night before the opening of the qualifying period for the November elections for several positions, including those of all Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges and the district attorney. One challenger has announced. Lionel "Lon" Burns, a criminal defense attorney, said Tuesday that he would run to unseat Cannizzaro.
Cannizzaro touted reforms he pushed since taking office in 2008, like establishing policies to prevent defendants from being let out of jail because prosecutors had missed the legally mandated deadline to file charges. He also said increased cooperation with the New Orleans Police Department and federal agencies has led to higher conviction rates for gun and violent crimes.
"I can report to the citizens of New Orleans that the criminal justice system is more robust, more aggressive, more modern and -- most importantly -- fairer than its predecessor, and is perhaps the strongest criminal justice system in the modern era of this city," Cannizzaro said.
The city's Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said in an email that he agreed the system has improved, but argued that "serious problems persist." He said the city's "user-pay" system to fund the Orleans Public Defenders Office is unreliable and inadequate, resulting in "dangerously high caseloads in some courts, raising the risk of unfair and erroneous outcomes," as well as undermining efficiency.
The room was packed with politicians and law-enforcement leaders, including U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, federal ATF Special Agent In Charge Philip Durham and Interim New Orleans Police Superintendent Lt. Michael Harrison.
Cannizzaro "has had a very, very, very close relationship with the New Orleans Police Department," Landrieu told the crowd, adding that last year, the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that felony conviction rates were at their highest since 1999.
City Councilman Jason Williams, a longtime criminal defense attorney, said he believed the district attorney's proposed conviction integrity unit would "change the entire dynamic of our criminal justice system."
"When the wrong person goes to jail, it means the perpetrator is left on our streets to offend and reoffend again," he told the audience.
Among the accomplishments the district attorney emphasized in his speech:
Cannizzaro said he renewed a focus on juvenile delinquency proceedings, through improving the juvenile diversion program for non-violent juveniles to steer them away from crime, while transferring violent offenders to the adult system.
He said he quadrupled the size of his "progressive" diversion program, which allows nonviolent defendants to avoid felony convictions. They receive assistance from counselors in finding a job, education, training and substance abuse counseling. The recidivism rate for participants is less than 5 percent, he said, compared to 50 percent for people leaving the Department of Corrections.
He said his office now provides support to 10 times more victims and witnesses than his predecessors.