How Bail ‘Criminalizes’ Poverty

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Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr

It costs the city of New Orleans more to administer the system of bail than it raises in revenue from bail, fines and fees, the Vera Institute of Justice said in a report released tuesday.

The finding underlines the inefficiencies—and inequities—of the “user-funded” approach to funding the justice system in New Orleans and most other cities around the U.S., Vera said.

Vera researchers analyzed cases involving about 11,000 people booked into New Orleans jail during 2015 on misdemeanor and felony charges.  And they studied another 16,000 cases resolved between January 2015 and August 2016 to determine what happened at the “back end” of the process.

They found that it cost the city $1.9 million more in jail costs than the revenue generated by the system for criminal justice agencies.  According to the researchers, the costs went far beyond financial, noting that the burden of the system fell primarily on poor, African-American residents whose relatives sometimes had to choose between paying the rent and raising bail money.

For those who couldn’t afford the sacrifice, on any given day in 2015, 558 New Orleans residents people were in jail because they couldn’t pay bail or were arrested for unpaid fines and fees.

“The enormous cost to people to extract a relative penny raises serious questions about whether charging users is worth it, let alone appropriate, given that it leads to jailing those who can’t pay,” the study said.

The study’s findings—representing the first effort to quantify the impact of the system on both justice-involved individuals and taxpayers—support anecdotal conclusions that the present system effectively amounts to the “criminalization of poverty,” Vera said.

While the impact of the system was particularly severe in New Orleans, which has a poverty rate nearly twice the national average, and a jail incarceration rate that is among the highest in the nation, the study authors said their findings supported an emerging body of research that demonstrated the “perverse incentives” created by the user-pay approach for justice agencies around the country—as well as the “depth of its impact” on New Orleans’ poorest residents.

The full report, titled “The Costs and Consequences of Bail, Fines and Fees in New Orleans,” details Vera’s study data and methods. A companion report, “Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans,”  written by Mathilde Laisne, Jon Wool and Christian Henrichson, provides a condensed review of the study and sets out its conclusions.

The reports, which were funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Open Philanthropy Project, are available here.

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