Jailed 80 Days, Homeless Man Sparks Furor Over New Orleans Bail Practices

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Canal Street

Arrested for defacing an historic property on this Canal Street block in New Orleans, a homeless man was jailed when he could not raise a $10k cash bond. Photo from Google Maps courtesy The Advocate.

Matthew Aldous was homeless when he was arrested by New Orleans police in January after they allegedly saw him writing on the wall of a Canal Street drugstore.

Both the prosecutor and the public defender agreed that Aldous, 33, posed no danger to the public if he was released.

But the judge, New Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, ordered him held in lieu of $10,000 bail.

Aldous was finally released this month after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor—and spending 80 days in jail. But his case has focused a spotlight on the often arbitrary bail practices of judges in many jurisdictions around the nation—as well as the lack of adequate services to provide mentally troubled, justice-involved individuals with alternatives to incarceration.

Local civil rights attorneys asked a federal judge to find Cantrell in breach of a U.S. District Court ruling that he should consider poor defendants’ ability to post bail before setting what could be an amount that’s too high for them to reasonably be expected to pay.

U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon said in August that the U.S. Constitution requires Cantrell to consider whether defendants can receive a lower bail amount or alternatives to money bail. If Cantrell found the defendants ineligible for either, he was supposed to explain why on the record.

Harry Cantrell

New Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell. Photo courtesy The Advocate

The bid for an injunction was the latest development in a 2017 lawsuit that has put Cantrell’s practices under a microscope.

According to the civil rights lawyers, Cantrell, who was elected in 2013, routinely imposed a minimum $2,500 bail for every felony count, without asking whether the defendants could make that amount, or considering whether they would really pose a danger to the community if released.

Civil rights lawyers say the lawsuit is important because so many defendants in New Orleans are poor. Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich has estimated that 95 percent of the city’s criminal defendants cannot afford an attorney.

Civil rights lawyers have brought lawsuits over bail practices against judges around the country since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., focused attention on the use of fines and fees to pad courts’ budgets.

The civil rights lawyers say that while Cantrell swore to the federal judge he’s following the judgment, Aldous’ case and others showed a much different reality.

According to lawyers from the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, Cantrell pays lip service to Fallon’s decision with a boilerplate statement about poor defendants’ rights before he runs roughshod over them,

An attorney representing the judge countered, “The bail protocol (Cantrell) follows for arrestees appearing before him complies with governing constitutional law and Judge Fallon’s declaratory judgment.”

Court Earns 25% of Budget From Bail Fees

In the New Orleans lawsuit, Fallon had found particularly damning the fact that Criminal District Court drew an unusually high percentage of its discretionary budget, about 25 percent, from fees tacked on top of defendants’ bails.

Cantrell had an inherent conflict of interest in setting bail amounts that were used to fund his court’s operating expenses, Fallon said.

Cantrell appealed that part of the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and it remains effectively on hold. However, he did not contest the part of Fallon’s decision that faulted his inquiries into defendants’ ability to make bail.

Prosecutors and public defenders said the arrest and its aftermath showed the need for more social services in New Orleans.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, whose office had charged the case as a potential felony carrying up to two years in prison, said he was pleased that Aldous and his lawyer “finally” accepted the plea deal offer a week after it was extended.

“With 16 arrests in Orleans Parish over the past two years — including six since November — Mr. Aldous has demonstrated a dire need for the scant mental health services our community can provide,” Cannizzaro said in a prepared statement.

“The criminal justice system is ill-equipped and underfunded to provide consistent treatment, but we hope this can be the badly needed first step in helping this troubled individual.”

Damage to Historic Property

Police arrested Aldous on Jan. 13 after they said he was spotted scrawling on a CVS store in the 800 block of Canal Street with a marker. He has a history of minor arrests for theft and shoplifting from downtown shops, and officials said he had been asked to stay away from this store.

Outside the French Quarter or Central Business District, Aldous might have been released within hours by a Municipal Court judge. But under Louisiana law, the drugstore’s location in the Downtown Development District meant that Aldous was eligible for booking on a felony count of criminal damage to a historic building.

Aldous appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, according to a police report. He was booked on criminal damage to an historic property, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.

When he appeared in court in January, the judge still had the option of releasing him on his own recognizance.

A report from the court’s pre-trial services division recommended release. A prosecutor said Aldous posed no danger, and Aldous’ public defender, Jimmy Miller, warned Cantrell that a bail so high for a homeless man would amount to a “de facto detention order.”

But Cantrell said Aldous had missed two court dates on municipal charges. He also made a reference to “other circumstances and facts that were mentioned to the court earlier and on television.”

The MacArthur Justice Center attorneys say court transcripts make it plain that Cantrell has not been asking defendants how much they can pay. In the case of the homeless man, Aldous, the judge couldn’t ask because Aldous didn’t even appear in court.

He was still in the jail detoxing at the time of his first court hearing.

An Orleans Public Defenders spokeswoman called Aldous’ jail time a needless waste from the start.

“We’re pleased Mr. Aldous will receive much-needed housing and care, but he shouldn’t have been in jail for more than two months to begin with,” Lindsey Hortenstine said in a statement.

“Mr. Aldous’ incarcerations were not only a waste of our city’s limited resources, but did not make us any safer.”

Matt Sledge, a staff writer for The New Orleans Advocate, is a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of two stories previously published in The Advocate. Read the full stories here.

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