New Orleans reforms bail system for minor crimes

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Lauded as the first step in bringing justice to the criminal justice system in New Orleans, the city’s council Thursday approved an ordinance that essentially ends money bail for most people charged with petty crimes.

New Orleans, long known as a mass incarceration city, has been under considerable scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department and by non-governmental organizations over the last several years for the disparate treatment of its poor, black residents following run-ins with police and the courts.

The ordinance is to take effect three months once it is signed by Mayor Mitch Landau, whose approval is expected.

Jurisdictions across the country are struggling to reform a system that has caused thousands of people accused of nonviolent crimes locked up because they could not afford bail. Lawsuits are pending in a series of places, including Cook County; San Francisco; and Harris County, TX., contending that officials improperly keep people locked up who have not been convicted simply because they are too poor to afford bail.

In Cook County, the issue of reforming bail has won support from a variety of public officials, including the county board president, the sheriff and the public defender. But many obstacles have stood in the way of reform.

The New Orleans ordinance, first introduced by Councilwoman Susan Guidry last fall, remained bottled up in committee amid opposition from the local bail industry while advocates and opponents worked on several amendments.

The ordinance calls for people arrested on most municipal crimes to be released without having to post cash bail; and for a prompt hearing on some specified crimes to ensure that people who are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community are not held unnecessarily. Judges can impose bail if the accused commit another crime or skip a hearing.

The ordinance does not cover those arrested on felony charges.

Even as supporters praised the council action during today’s session, many spoke of the 150 years since Reconstruction where state law and Louisiana’s court system were used to “recapture” those made free by the Civil War.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said her organization would work to ensure that other jurisdictions in the state stop “incarcerating poor people for no other reason than their lack of financial means.”

Passage of the bill came after the Vera Institute of Justice reported on steep economic consequences to people arrested in New Orleans and forced to put up bail. Much of the commentary at the council session centered on the fairness of ending money bail, but others pointed to the savings to taxpayers from cutting jail populations of those accused but not convicted of petty crimes.

New Orleans requires those arrested to pay fees along with bail to help finance the criminal justice system. In its report, Vera estimated that in 2015, defendants and their families paid $9.2 million in non-refundable payments to the courts and to the private bail industry.

“For too long in New Orleans and many other cities nationwide, the use of bail, fines and fees has extracted money from people in poor, historically disadvantaged communities and put it in the pockets of government and commercial companies,” said Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans Office. “Through this report, we now understand the full extent of both the injustice and inefficiency of our system. We hope that the findings will serve as final proof that charging for justice—and jailing people who can’t afford the price—comes at too high a cost for all of us.”

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