Before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ parish prison complex had 7,524 beds – on average 6,500 of them occupied each day – making it the ninth-largest jail in the nation, and far out of proportion to the city’s size, says the Christian Science Monitor. The jail’s 12 buildings were heavily damaged by the storm and floodwaters, so it became a prime target of those who believed the entire justice system could be reinvented along with the jail. In 2010, a task force of Mayor Mitch Landrieu decided that jail size could drive reform and recommended the approval of a smaller facility, with 1,438 beds. By the time the city broke ground for the jail last year, the city still held roughly 2,400 inmates – nearly double the new jail capacity when it opens in 2014. One reform instituted to reduce the jail population included new city cite-and-release ordinances, and orders to limit arrests for traffic warrants and citations rather than arrests on many petty crimes.
New Orleans also embarked on pretrial release reform aimed at reducing the expensive and unfair detention of inmates who can’t afford bail, as other cities have done for jail overcrowding. The new pretrial services program has a staff to help judges make more realistic and speedy bail decisions by gathering information about defendants. They then make assessments of defendants’ risk of flight and danger as soon after arrest as possible and before defendants first see a judge. The program also provides supervision of those released on bail – keeping track of them to ensure they return for their court date. With a federal grant, the New Orleans pilot program was started last April and run by the Vera Institute of Justice. Within months, the number of inmates awaiting trial dropped by an average of 165 inmates a day – an annual rate of savings to the city of $1.4 million.