In an effort to end a system of “cash register justice” that has placed an unfair burden on low-income families in New Orleans, the Vera Institute of Justice has called on the city to increase its funding to the court system by $3.8 million a year and abolish the practice of money bail, regardless of the offense.
In a blueprint released this week, entitled Paid in Full, Vera said pretrial bail and the imposition of legal fines and fees in New Orleans is “driving unnecessary and harmful jail incarceration, pulling millions of dollars out of the pockets of struggling families…and costing the city’s taxpayers…”
While the increased payment seems huge, Vera argued that it will save the city’s taxpayers $5.5 million in the costs of unnecessarily jailing people, which can then be reinvested “in ways that will help support the community.”
Across the U.S., a growing reform movement has been advocating ending the use of court fines and fees that disproportionately affect low-income families and people of color. The movement has picked up traction over the past few months in cities and states across the country.
Similar reforms are underway in St. Louis, Mo., where, according to the St. Louis American, over 70 percent of the population awaiting trial in the city’s courts are African American, in a city where African Americans represent 48 percent of the overall population.
Most of those individuals are being charged with non-violent crimes, but they can’t be released simply because they’re unable to afford bail.
John C. Muhammad, a St. Louis resident, told the newspaper, “I witnessed this [injustice] firsthand when I was arrested in 2018 because of multiple traffic tickets. A judge issued me a bond totaling $5,000. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand how many people I know who have $5,000 to just give away.”
Noting that New Orleans has made major strides in reforming its pretrial system since 2017, Vera said the city nevertheless continues to jail people at “a rate 30 percent higher than the national average,” noting that of the more than one third of people in jail who are incarcerated because they can’t afford to pay money bail, eight in 10 are black.
“The next step is to align court practices with this new system of funding to end money injustice and replace it with a fairer and safer system,” Vera said.
Under Vera’s plan for New Orleans, non-violent offenders would be released pretrial with case-specific levels of support and supervision.
For violent offenders who need detention, judges would “conduct a full evidentiary hearing to determine the likelihood, nature, and degree of danger posed, and potential ways to mitigate that danger with support,” Vera said.
The violent offender could only be held if the judge finds with “clear and convincing evidence” that he or she poses serious risk and danger to an individual or community.
Based on projections by Vera, after eradicating money bail and replacing it with the practices outlined in the blueprint, the number of New Orleanians in jail would decline by 304 to 687 people daily.
By taking these actions, the city of New Orleans will be the first in the country to replace money bail and conviction fees— “the twin pillars on which money injustice stands”— with a fair and financially stable system.
“We hope to harness the energy for reform in New Orleans and build a path forward, planning for a future where nobody is in jail merely because they cannot afford to buy their way out,” said Alison Shih, the Senior Program Associate at Vera Institute.
The full Vera Institute of Justice blueprint Paid in Full can be downloaded here.
Additional Reading: NYC to Release More Teens Without Cash Bail
This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Andrea Cipriano.