Like other jurisdictions in Louisiana and across the country, New Orleans relies on defendants to help bankroll its criminal justice system, from fees paid to get out of jail on bond to a menu of charges that judges assess upon a conviction.
But a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice says that "user-pay" formula doesn't add up. The city takes in far less from those sources than it costs to house people who sit in jail because they either cannot afford bail or haven't paid their fines or fees, the report concludes.
The study found that some 550 Orleans Parish defendants sit in jail on any given day because they can't come up with enough money to bond out or because they were booked on arrest warrants for failing to pay fines and fees from a previous conviction.
Vera pegged the cost to the city of those jail days in 2015 at $6.4 million. That compares with the $4.5 million that Municipal Court, Criminal District Court and other agencies reaped from bail and bond fees and post-conviction fines and fees.
The report also found that more than 4,000 arrest warrants were issued from both courts in 2015 — and 536 people were booked into jail — for failing to pay fines and fees or for skipping out on court dates scheduled to address their past-due payments.
The study found that arrest warrants were issued for black residents who owed money at 1.5 times the rate for white people in similar circumstances.
The Vera report is the first attempt to quantify both the pre-trial and post-conviction tab that falls on arrestees in New Orleans — who pays, how much and what happens if they don't — in a system that relies on arrests and convictions to help pay the bills.
It comes amid a swell of legal challenges over the ripple effects in communities that rely heavily on arrests and convictions for revenue.
The U.S. Department of Justice has leveled increased scrutiny on jurisdictions that have failed to heed court rulings that prohibit keeping people in jail based solely on an inability to pay.
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In New Orleans, the dozen judges of Criminal District Court are defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2015 that accuses them of facilitating a "debtors prison" by issuing illegal arrest warrants for failure to pay court fines and fees without first offering those people a chance to plead poverty.
The pending lawsuit has prompted changes in the court and the recall of hundreds of outstanding arrest warrants, often issued directly from the court's collections office.
But the Vera analysis found that a far greater number of such arrest warrants in 2015 came out of Municipal Court, which has a much larger docket.
The Vera report quantified a financial burden that it found falls largely on black residents, who also make up an outsized share of those arrested and convicted.
It found that black residents pay $5.4 million, or 84 percent, of the bond premiums and bond fees that go to bondsmen and public agencies. Black people in 2015 also were charged $2.7 million in fines and fees upon conviction, or 69 percent of the total.
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The courts and the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office are the agencies that rely most on such money in their budgets.
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Jon Wool, director of Vera's New Orleans office, said the report is the first to calculate "the extraordinary amount of money that is being taken from largely poor communities, largely black communities in New Orleans, and driven to these government agencies, and to the commercial bail bond industry.
"That's truly significant for anyone who cares about the health of struggling communities. To have this drain on their assets is very bad news," Wool said.
"For those who aren't able to pay, it's another very significant, harmful consequence of this system that they stay in jail or risk going back to jail."
Wool argued that the cost of what he described as "excess incarceration" is borne by city taxpayers. By contrast, he pointed to a federal system where release decisions are based on a defendant's perceived threat to public safety or flight risk.
"The savings would start to accrue if the (New Orleans) courts would rely less on holding people in jail on the front end conditioned on their ability to come up with money," he said.
"That alone — unlinking ability to pay with pretrial detention — is fundamental. It's not pie in the sky. It's done in 92 federal district courts around the country and would make an enormous difference," Wool said.
The report is aimed at drawing attention to what Wool described as a "misguided" system in which poor communities are asked to help pay for "core government functions," or else risk jail by not paying.
In calculating how many people stay jailed for lack of money, and for how long, the report excluded people held on $100,000 or higher bail, as well as the first two days of detention.
It found that nearly one-third of felony defendants remained in jail for the duration of their cases — spending an average of 114 days there.
Monetary bail was required for release in 85 percent of the felony cases that Vera studied.
Not surprisingly, the higher the bail, the lower the percentage of defendants who bonded out. But the study found that "one in four defendants cannot afford bail at any amount ... even as low as $100."
Vera operates a pre-trial services program in New Orleans, assessing the risk level of new arrestees and providing that information to judges who set bail amounts.
City Councilman Jason Williams called the Vera report "crucial to exploring alternatives to our current system."
"The figures in this report underscore the need for major changes to the way we approach crime and incarceration in our city," Williams, a criminal defense attorney, said in a statement.
"The Vera report makes it abundantly clear that locking people up in jail is not an effective solution and it is not the answer to the crime that is plaguing our communities. The collateral damage these outdated policies has caused to individuals and families throughout the city is a cost we cannot continue to bear."
But the report's attack on the money bail system in New Orleans was ridiculed by Matt Dennis, a local bail bondsman and outspoken Vera critic.
Dennis warned of a threat to public safety from what he called an unproven approach that discounts the accountability bonding companies have to track down their charges who fail to appear in court.
Dennis took aim at both Wool and City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who has pressed for an overhaul of the Municipal Court bail system that would essentially eliminate bail for nonviolent crimes.
Dennis disputed Vera's figures, claiming that "less than 1 percent of the jail's population consists of 'low-risk, nonviolent' persons who are stuck because they cannot afford their bond."
"There is absolutely no need for these destructive actions to move forward," he said of Guidry's push.
According to the Vera study, felony and misdemeanor defendants paid $4.7 million to bond agents in 2015 for the 10 percent premium those companies charge, in addition to $1.7 million in government fees on those bonds.
Those fees are split among the court, the District Attorney's Office, the public defender and the Sheriff's Office.
Meanwhile, a report issued last month by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux's office recommended funding Municipal Court through a general appropriation and urged the city to lobby the Legislature to do away with fees to fund the court.
"This funding structure threatens the impartiality of judges by providing financial incentive to deny defendants equal access to justice," the report said.
This story has been updated to include the comments of City Councilman Jason Williams.